The Place Beyond The Pines is (for all its flaws) poetically haunting. It is depressing and heart-breaking. Are people capable of change? Can cycles be broken? One moment can change your life and the lives of those around you. Derek Cianfrance returns with another engrossing narrative following 2010’s brilliant Blue Valentine. Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and more, this is stunningly ambitious film that though doesn’t quite pull it off, should be lauded for its sheer scope and scale.
Three storylines intersect over a linear narrative as lives collide, choices are made and fates sealed in Schenectady, New York. (In the Mohawk language, Schenectady means “the place beyond the pines”, and the title gives the film both a free-floating poetic resonance and a historical anchorage.)
Gosling plays Luke Glanton, an aimless stunt bike rider for a travelling circus who tries, in his own well-meaning, clumsy way to be a good father for a son he didn’t know he had. His attempts appear doomed, he cannot help make mistakes and yet Gosling’s fabulously subtle performance makes us root for this messed up guy. He manages to bring out a certain earnestness in a character whose lazy, effortlessly cool manner belies a world of hurt, disappointment, anger and frustration just beneath the surface. There is a particularly poignant moment when Luke slips into the church to see his son get baptised and there is a bitter-sweet resignation as he silently weeps for himself as well as the family he can never truly be a part of. But he still keeps trying and here much credit goes to the actor because we want him to succeed.
Luke: I want to do something with him that’s his first time. I’m going to look in his face when he tries ice cream. Every time he has ice cream for the rest of his life, he’s going to see my fucking face.
Now, the delectable Ryan has played similar type-cast sort of roles before and I do want him to expand and challenge his considerable talents, but you cannot deny that he does a fine job of them. On the other hand, Bradley Copper is an actor I’ve only recently started to grow fond of. His performances in Limitless, Silver Linings Playbook and now The Place Beyond The Pines have been increasingly nuanced and assured, breaking out of the ‘just a pretty face’ mould. He tackles the deeply conflicted character of Avery Cross, a middle-class well-educated police officer who gets embroiled in a heavily corrupt department even as he tries to balance a family life with his wife and baby son.
These first two acts are the most powerful, the most affecting and it is only because we have considerable emotional investment by the time the third act comes along, that we continue watching and feel for the two new characters (Emory Cohen and Dane Dehann have both done commendable jobs) that get introduced here. It is the weakest part of the film and because of the lack of time (at 2hrs 20mins it is already fairly long) feels rushed and a bit contrived, which is a damn shame. Ideally, all three acts deserved more individual focus in a multi-episode mini-series arc and the filmic format does mean that the story appears fragmented and at times frustratingly disjointed.
But for the most part, the experimental lack of formal structure works in the film’s favour. It never pushes us towards choosing between the two, nor is it easy to decide where our loyalties should lie. Then again, it doesn’t matter because the narrative is not about taking sides or passing judgements, it isn’t about dramatic plot twists. It is about small poignant moments, about beautiful symbolism and a slow exploration of life. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and composer Mike Patton help in complimenting the carefully crafted sense of atmosphere that appears easy and natural but is brimming with raw emotion. There are some wonderfully shot scenes, an ethereal but rustic nature that is heightened by an evocative OST. (The Snow Angel which is used in the trailer is one of the best)
There is a difference in the vibrant, almost manic energy when Gosling’s character is on the scene (If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder) as opposed to the fast-paced crime drama vibe when Cross is introduced halfway through the first act. The third act is more introspective about the narrative themes of fathers and sons, past sins and inherited legacies. There aren’t any earth-shattering insights or conclusions and the characters are as flawed as the film but it’s an ultimately compelling attempt with moments of pure electricity, visceral emotions and a lingering imprint that will remain long after you’re done.
It’s not for everybody, but you won’t know that if you don’t keep an open mind! So go check out this trailer.