Three years ago Derek Cianfrance earned a great deal of praise from critics for his second film, Blue Valentine, a moody and mature romantic drama that traced a married couple’s break-up with an irregular, choppy narrative. It contained excellent performances from the superb Michelle Williams and everyone’s favourite blue-eyed boy of few words, Ryan Gosling.
Gosling and Cianfrance recently teamed up again with The Place Beyond The Pines, a long, weighty drama set in upstate New York that is split into three distinct parts. In the first, Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman who drifts from town to town as part of a travelling fair, enjoying a modicum of celebrity as well as a plethora of one night stands. One of these was in the town of Schenectady (the name is derived from a Mohawk word meaning “place beyond the pine plains”.) with a waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes); after she appears unannounced outside one of his shows, Luke discovers that their previous encounter resulted in pregnancy, and that she has given birth to a young son.
Despite the fact Romina is in a steady relationship with another man named Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Luke decides to try and do the noble thing, and quits his job with the travelling fair so that he can stay in Schenectady. His intention is to provide for his son and to be around as he grows up, but despite some irregular work with a rural mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke needs more money to make ends meet and (in his opinion) to make more of an impression on Romina. Robin, who has been involved in robberies in the past, decides to go into partnership with Luke, and the pair begin to rob local banks, with Luke making quick getaways on his motorbike.
Luke eventually crosses paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young but ambitious beat cop from a much wealthier background. Avery’s father, a District Attorney played by Harris Yulin, wants him to follow in his footsteps rather than waste his time toiling away in a small town police force, but partly to spite his father Avery continues with his chosen career, even if it means taking a desk job in the evidence room. While there, though, Avery becomes embroiled in a corruption scandal involving several colleagues, most notably the intimidating DeLuca, played with real menace by Ray Liotta.
The third part of the film jumps forward fifteen years, and without wishing to give anything away, it concentrates on Luke and Avery’s two sons, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen). In this long, final act the film’s lofty themes of pre-destiny, class and father-son relationships are explored to a fuller extent, and The Place Beyond The Pines both takes on the air of and directly references Greek tragedy (several character names and a casual reference to the town of Troy, New York give it away).
This is one of the best films I have seen this year, but it is not without its flaws. First of all though I was really impressed with its epic scope. This is exactly the kind of cinema I want to see more of – a clear but involving story that engages you with its well-rounded, interesting characters. Cianfrance has made a movie that is almost biblical in terms of the story’s ambition, with its exploration of generations of two different families who are linked together by blood and circumstance. Despite the running length necessary to let a tale like this breathe and slowly build I was hooked throughout and more than a little disappointed when it ended.
I’ve enjoyed many of Gosling’s performances over the past few years, but when I read a few months ago he was again playing a getaway driver of few words, I was fully expecting a re-hash of his role in Drive. However I needn’t have worried: there are certainly similarities, but he is brilliant here as the petty criminal who is trying, ultimately, to do the right thing. He has an intensity and a vulnerability that means comparisons with James Dean are not wide of the mark. “The New James Dean” has been thrown at many a young actor – Christian Slater and River Phoenix among them – but it carries considerable weight in Gosling’s case, even if he is clearly good enough to transcend comparison with other actors.
Gosling’s character, despite only appearing in the first third of the film, is the one that really encapsulates Cianfrance’s film; though he commits acts of violence and makes bad choices of his own free will, there is a sadness around him that gains the sympathy of the audience, and his own tragic failure to successfully fulfill the father-son role echoes through the rest of the film.
In the second section, which concentrates on Cooper’s Avery, the film sheds a little of its sulky brooding, though again the story is engaging. The main father-son relationship here is between Avery and his father, a man whom you suspect feels plenty of disappointment about his son’s choice of career, but ultimately is still fulfilling a supportive role, even in his 70s.
Cooper is decent here as an ambitious cop who is forced to deal with a few important ethical issues, though his is perhaps the least interesting of the main roles in the film; his character is not a coward by any means, but Cooper is commendably restrained in a variety of scenes which require him to be threatened or intimidated by other policemen – notably DeLuca and the old-school Chief Weirzbowski (Robert Clohessy). As such the eyes are drawn to the supporting actors in Cooper’s scenes, rather than the man near the top of the bill.
The obvious comparison here would be Frank Serpico, but Cianfrance’s story doesn’t really hang around long enough to fully explore the fallout of the corruption, using the old trick of showing a news summary on TV. It did remind me at times, however, of James Mangold’s 1997 film Cop Land (which coincidentally – although perhaps not so coincidentally – also featured Liotta).
The third story has been criticised by some as being overly long and slow, but I enjoyed it just as much as the others, and didn’t think any of it sagged. There is an unlikely coincidence in the plot that necessitates some forgiveness, but if you can get over that you are left with a gripping final third that continues with the themes of privilege and father-son relationships. It begins with the funeral of Avery’s father and ends with a glimpse of the respective futures of the two younger main characters, AJ and Jason.
AJ and Jason are played very well by Cohen and DeHaan, one affecting a tougher street image and accent in order to hide his decent upbringing and the other a wiry, desperate type that has perhaps inherited his biological father’s self-destructive tendencies.
This is firmly a story of sons and fathers, though the grounded Romina links all three segments (and Mendes is very good); that said, it feels like she is not used enough in the second and third parts, especially considering she is so important to the film’s first third. More jarring, though, is the way the character of Avery’s wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) is just left by the wayside when the film leaps forward 15 years. I would happily have watched another 10-15 minutes if it explored the reasons for the breakdown in their marriage. While she isn’t a central character, I don’t think the film would have suffered from a lack of focus had it found a little more screen time for the female characters.
The short stories contained in each of three parts are slightly different from each other in look and feel, but there is a constancy of pace that helps to make it all fit together seamlessly. (The talented cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has worked with Steve McQueen and Michael Winterbottom extensively, and can be very proud of his contribution to The Place Beyond The Pines. At times the pairing of Bobbitt and Cianfrance reminds me of the work of Scorsese and the cinematographer he collaborated with on many films from GoodFellas onwards, Michael Ballhaus. The film’s stunning, long opening tracking shot of Gosling walking through the fair is one example, and a sequence on a winding road shot from above looked so good I had to stop and rewind twice. The fair, the town and – in particular – the surrounding countryside are all filmed beautifully.) As well as the themes, there are little echoes that smartly link family members and generations: Avery adopts a “one of the boys” persona with his fellow cops, but it is the calculated act of a future politician; similarly his son adopts a tough image at school, and is revealed by the end of the film to be a very different character. Luke robs banks and escapes on his motorbike, while his son Jason steals prescription drugs from a pharmacy and escapes on his BMX. I am certain a second viewing of this film will reveal much subtlety that I missed first time round.
The chase scenes, incidentally, are tense and handled superbly, especially a long pursuit through the town after Luke has blown one of his bike’s tyres. The adrenalin rush of the robbery and the getaway is captured perfectly and Cianfrance never loses a chance to show the action, or the aftermath, in a realistic fashion; Gosling’s Luke has a cool hand for the most part, but understandably is seen throwing up after the first heist.
I should mention too the film’s score, by Faith No More’s Mike Patton, which is haunting and fits the images superbly, seemingly swaying with the pine trees on more than one occasion. Certain songs are also used in an excellent and timely fashion, and particular mention must go to the great use of The Cryin’ Shames’ “Please Stay”.
I’ll just reiterate an earlier point: I’d love to see more of these types of film being made. The Place Beyond The Pines harks back to the (yada yada) glory days of the freewheeling pre-blockbuster early 1970s, and if he makes the right choices there’s no reason why we shouldn’t one day be talking about the talented Cianfrance in the same breath as some of the great 20th Century directors of American cinema like Coppola or Scorsese. While Blue Valentine suggested a promising young filmmaker had arrived, with his third feature he has truly excelled, and I am looking forward to his next film, the low-key sounding indie Metalhead, immensely.
Despite some flaws, I haven’t seen many new films recently that match the quality of this one. Got a feeling that this is a stepping stone to Cianfrance’s first masterpiece, and really hope that turns out to be the case.
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen
Running Time: 140 Minutes