Following 2010’s chamber love(loss) drama Blue Valentine, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance returns in more virtuosic style with The Place Beyond the Pines.
Don’t let the tomfoolery of gross mis-marketing fool you. Despite the somewhat frenzied trailers and occasional heist-turned-motorcycle chases, Cianfrance’s latest is just as hermetic and character driven as his last. Wrestling with themes of familial disconnect and moral ineptitude, the exhausting 140 minute running time swims around all of these ideas without ever attacking them head-on. Nurture vs. nature, it bears some mercurial resemblance to Terrence Malick’s recent The Tree of Life, only this time with a few more drugs and a few less dinosaurs.
It kicks off with Ryan Gosling as Luke, a nomadic motorcycle stunt rider in a travelling carnival show. Finishing up one night of dizzying feats, he stumbles into former lover Romina (Eva Mendes), who drops a colossal bombshell telling him that, after one night of passion a year ago, he now has a son. Stunned, the capricious Luke quits the stunt game and uses his ‘motobandit’ skills to pull a series of bank robberies.
Following 45 minutes of masterful crime-drama storytelling, Cianfrance segues into a phlegmatic middle chapter when we’re introduced to law-school graduate turned ambitious police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The law enforcer is quickly on our antihero’s tail, while the venal police department he works for wait for him surreptitiously in the wings. The third, redemptive instalment to the story looks at the fatal impact and legacy that the two hunks’ confrontation has had on the present day, and the prism of deceit, corruption and hidden truths that continue to whistle through the trees of Schenectady New York, aka ‘the place beyond the pines’.
Just as in Blue Valentine, Cianfrance proves himself to be a quintessential ‘actor’s director’, coalescing with his cast to create a handful of career-best performances. Striking gold twice with Canadian heartthrob Gosling, whom is so entrenched in the intricacies of his character’s architecture that the results are quite literally worn on his sleeve and the meticulous, self-designed tattoos. His portrayal of Luke is so enigmatic and alluring that it will distractingly remind you of his turn in Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 Drive, a superior, but equally cryptic movie.
While her screen-time is limited, Eva Mendes impresses in a testing, warts-and-all performance as the forlorn lover/mother Romina. In a film so emotionally opaque, she resonates as the bare, beating heart of the film. The biggest thespian accolade has to go to Bradley Cooper as the centrepiece player of the story. Unlike the smouldering Gosling, the Silver Linings Playbook star uses deafening silence to present his character’s complexity and moral dilemma, rather than cloak it. Two great films in a row, it’s a shame he will next be gracing multiplex cinemas with the turgid end to The Hangover trilogy, as he certainly has an indisputable dramatic aptitude.
The support are also on top form, most notably Australian sideliner Ben Mendelsohn as a grimy mechanic looking for a quick buck, and the inexplicably menacing, young hopeful Dane DeHaan, whose character we meet in the lacklustre final story. In fact, the only entirely redundant on-screen performance comes from Ray Liotta, phoning it in with the same bad guy mobster shtick we have seen from him countless times before, and really have no desire to see again.
Director of photography Sean Bobbitt (who dazzled previously working on Steve McQueen’s Shame and Hunger) brings more fervour to the picture with cinematography that is plush when it needs to be, and claustrophobic during the more intense narrative moments. Sonically, Faith No More/Ipecac Records nut Mike Patton puts in a similarly frantic score to some success but, like some of his musical endeavours, is prone to being aggressively distracting.
Cianfrance’s ambition is admirable, and he certainly has an idiosyncratic style that nestles in somewhere between early day Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Unfortunately, nothing here holds together long enough to be a consistently involving movie. For every great cinematic moment, there’s two steps back, with croaky script beats and what appears to be a complete lack of post-production editing prowess. Overpacked and exhausting, The Place Beyond the Pines is certainly a place worth visiting, but it’s not the accomplished masterpiece it deserved to be.
The Place Beyond the Pines is in cinemas across the UK & Europe from Friday 12th April, 2013.