Today, in commemoration of the late Roger Ebert (an idol of mine), I’m offering a different kind of post. With the weekend coming up, I’m officially taking advantage of the blog to steer you all towards two extraordinary new movies that seem tailor-made for a Millennial audience: Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
You might have encountered Cianfrance’s gritty cinema-verite approach to American life in his 2010 powerhouse Blue Valentine. His latest is a distilled return to the aesthetic that chronicles an epic generational feud in the raggedy city of Schenectady, New York. At the bottom of the economic totem pole is Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a carnival stunt motorcyclist whose former girlfriend – a diner waitress and night student (Eva Mendes) – gave birth to their infant son while Luke was on the road. When Luke puts his motorbike skills to use robbing local banks in an ill-advised attempt to support his kid, he crosses paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie policeman embarrassed by his blue blooded roots and determined to cut his own path through life. Their confrontation brands a destructive legacy upon their respective families, culminating when the two sons have grown into teenagers.
The film’s three-part script is weighty, ambitious, and it doesn’t always work. But the entire experience feels so authentically realized that most audiences won’t care. On top of featuring stark, stirring performances from Gosling, Cooper, and especially newcomers Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, Pines offers some of the most naturalistic cinematography I’ve seen in years. DP Sean Bobbitt (a former war photographer) offers us the illusion of simply watching life happen. Everything, from the “clang” of the steel cage that Gosling rides into in the film’s epic opening shot, to the use of real policemen and Schenectady residents as extras lends the film a heft of danger; the kind we live with every day. You never know what’s going to happen.
But most impressive of all, Pines tackles timely questions that most American filmmakers are too timid to approach. Are we capable of overcoming our parents’ history? Is a child born to a poor family predestined to lead a destitute life? If one parent turned to crime, will the offspring follow? These are irrepressible concerns for the recession generations, and they speak to the anxiety I’ve felt as a Millennial living in an era with dwindling work opportunities for the young. Wisely, Cianfrance doesn’t offer any answers with Pines. To do so would disservice the complexity of the times we live in.
Now for the most jarring double feature since Lincoln and Django Unchained (repertory theater managers, I hope you’re reading this), try pairing the somber, contemplative Pines with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Korine, the art house provocateur who penned Kids at age 19 and directed the wonderfully stomach-turning Gummo roars back to the screen with one of his finest works to date. The story borders on nonexistent. Four bored college-aged women (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, and Selena Gomez) hold up a fast food restaurant for cash, hightail it to Tampa for a week of sun, booze, and sex with thousands of fellow “breakers”, and wind up in cuffs when the cops bust a motel room party. Their savior is a wannabe rapper and drug dealer named Alien (an unrecognizable James Franco) who bails them out of jail and almost effortlessly crafts them into machine gun wielding protégés; complete with powder-pink ski masks.
Having grown up in the MTV era, I was stunned by how vividly Korine captured the narcissistic hedonism that millions of us were brought up to pursue. The opening sequence alone – a slo-mo parade of tanned, toned and booze-soaked bodies, set to Skrillex’s signature dubstep throbs – will weed out the more prudish audience members. But there’s nothing titillating about the way Korine shoots the film’s young, naked revelers (most of whom are real extras). Beneath the palm trees, Keystone Light festooned beaches, and purple sunsets, there’s an undertow of dread: the sense that something terrible – worse than the girls’ initial robbery – is going to happen.
Ultimately, it’s the young actresses themselves who sell this menace. The casting of Hudgens and Gomez – former Disney Channel queens – is no accident. All four leads represent youthful wanderlust perverted into something frightening and more adult: a hunger for new experiences, no matter the human cost. What Korine never allows us to forget is how horribly others suffer in the wake of the girls’ adventure. Say, the restaurant customers they joyfully assault, or the anonymous lives they gun down under the cockeyed command of Alien.
What I believe Korine is showing us – even “believe” feels like a strong word here – is a nightmare of impending suicide. Millions of Millennials are forgoing traditional careers and indulging their wild side while they still have age on their side. I’m one of them! But what happens if many of us take this intrepid spirit too far? And how will we know when we’ve reached the point of no redemption? By the time the credits came, I felt blindsided and unnerved of what awaited back in real life. Even Ellie Goulding’s seductively melodic “Lights” – the film’s closing track – felt like a funeral hymn.
So, with that glowing note of endorsement, I sincerely recommend both Spring Breakers and The Place Beyond the Pines to all Millennial moviegoers who’ve been yearning to fork over ten bucks for something that acknowledges the questions that may define our legacy.