In a bold follow-up to his controversially rated, critically lauded Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance continues his exploration of family ties with The Place Beyond the Pines. In his previous film, which nabbed an Oscar nomination for Michelle Williams, Cianfrance tugged on a frayed marriage, cutting back and forth between its idyllic, if not ideal, beginnings and its nasty, brutish end. In his latest, the writer-director turns his lens on the relationships between fathers and sons in a stubbornly linear narrative that examines the concept of legacy in three distinct acts.
The audience first comes to know Luke (Ryan Gosling) not by sight but by sound, as he breathes deeply and flips his butterfly knife to the faint tune of carnival music. Our first image of him isn’t of his face but of his tats, and the camera latches on to the back of his bleached-blond head, as if mounted on his shoulders, as he winds through a traveling fairground in one uninterrupted tracking shot, all the way to the metal sphere in which he rides a motorcycle with two other stuntmen. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit (Steve McQueen’s Shame and Hunger) pulls right up alongside the cage bars and peers in, rendering the bikes abstract as they buzz by. Cianfrance relies on this style throughout the film to emphasize both the gritty reality and meditative quality of even his riskiest action scenes.
Without a word of exposition, we know all we need to know. When Romina (Eva Mendes) shows up, his first utterance is a heavy “Hey.” (One can’t help but think of the “Hey girl” meme that peaked about a year ago.) It turns out Luke had a fling with Ro the last time he rode through town. She’s come by to say hi, although it seems like she has more on her mind. And when he swings by her place before he hits the road again, he discovers why: an approximately three-month-old fair-haired baby boy.
With no one to play off of, Gosling is called upon to convey a lot with little, and the way he wipes his hands before he holds his son and the few tears he sheds at the back of a cavernous Catholic church speak volumes. One understands that he sees up at the baptismal font the family he should be a part of—and likely will never be—without his having to say a word about it.
Also excellent is Ben Mendelsohn as the greasy mechanic Robin, who offers Luke a job so he can stick around and try to provide for his boy. Impressed by Luke’s particular skill set, Robin suggests they try robbing a few banks.
Opposite to the outlaw Luke is Avery (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious rookie cop with a law degree and a wife and baby at home. The son of a powerful local judge, he’s attempting to forge his own path but is stymied by corruption and guilt. Cooper’s role is slicker than Gosling’s but no less deep, as his character also experiences complicated reactions to fatherhood. His revelations are verbalized, though, and therefore his performance seems less nuanced than his co-star’s.
Eventually, the two men collide in an incident that reverberates 15 years later with their sons.
The Place Beyond the Pines, which is the Iroquois translation of Schenectady, where the film takes place, is an emotionally intense, 140-minute viewing experience made all the more intimate with close-up camerawork that positions the audience in the characters’ points-of-view. Like Blue Valentine before it, Cianfrance’s latest mines male identity and emotion to stunning effect, due in no small part to Gosling’s layered, electric turn.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writer: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn
Release Date: Mar. 29, 2013