The apotheosis of the screen anti-hero has resulted in an identifiable product that is rough’n’ready, solitary, vain and self-pitying – enter on a motorbike the stubbled, smoking Luke (Ryan Gosling), wearing (inside out) a T-shirt more battered and frayed at the edges than is strictly necessary for any Hollywood rebel. Then there is the incorruptible cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose steely, ruthless ambition finds a perfect home in the environment of the police force (think Guy Pearce’s character in LA Confidential).
As in a Greek tragedy, their lives intersect and have consequences that will drastically impact on future events. When Luke holds the baby boy that he never knew he had, he quits his job as a stunt-rider with a touring roadshow in order to be near the kid. Soon after, he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a backwoods grease monkey who has spent too long in the make-up van. Though penniless, Robin generously offers the stranger a job in his workshop – it is a happenstance loaded with dire portent.
Wanting to provide for his son, who is being raised by the mother (Eva Mendes) and her de facto partner, Luke is persuaded by Robin to join him in robbing banks. Down the track, malicious fate has planned the encounter with Avery. It is an unusually structured screenplay, insofar as Avery does not appear until nearly halfway through the story, which is further segmented by a third, concluding episode that is not too contrived to spoil the whole.
Gosling, a mannered actor, is perfect in the part, while Cooper, asked to be more than just a handsome straight-man in an oafish comedy, is coldly convincing as one whose character is transformed by the choices that circumstance forces him to make. There is also a fantastic chase scene that actually bears some resemblance to reality, but at the heart of Derek Cianfrance’s stylised and compelling movie is a dark cynicism that is all the more disturbing for the accuracy with which it reflects the mood of the times.