Three years ago, Derek Cianfrance found great critical success with his small but perfectly formed Blue Valentine, a claustrophobic movie about the dissolution of a marriage, beautifully acted by its two leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Blue Valentine, due to its exceptional reception, left Cianfrance in a predicament not uncommon to small, suddenly-successful directors – the problem of the difficult second movie. The second movie can be a struggle – it needs to be bigger and more ambitious than the first, but still retain the original talent, and for every Pulp Fiction, there are a tonne of second movies which simply crumble under the pressure. Luckily, The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s second feature, doesn’t falter. It’s an intelligent and ambitious, sprawling epic of a movie, a great follow-up to Blue Valentine though not quite a cinematic masterpiece. It’s certainly a very interesting and thought-provoking film, and one which cements Cianfrance as a director to watch out for in future.
The film begins with Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who tours the country in travelling fairs. Back in Altamont one year, he runs into old flame Romina (Eva Mendes) who happens to have a baby-shaped surprise for our hero. She also, however, happens to have another man in her life. Desperate to make things right and play a part in his son’s life, Luke is driven to bank-robbery on the advice of boss and friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), an act which leads to him crossing paths with rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper). Avery has his own issues facing corruption in the force, and his home life with his young son and wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) seems to be under strain. Avery and Luke’s lives intersect in devastating ways which will tear them, and their children, apart.
The Place Beyond the Pines was marketed as a Ryan Gosling vehicle and spiritual sequel to the excellent Drive. Such marketing however, is fairly misleading, as Pines is a far more ambitious ensemble piece. It’s a film about fathers and sons primarily, spanning generations and time, and possesses a highly unusual structure – the film divides into three distinct chapters, a move which is sure to divide audiences. The first two sections work by denying narrative convention – turning the movie into a running series of events and circumstances; it’s almost experimental, a stream-of-consciousness event jumping from character to character and situation to situation. The movie places a mirror between Avery and Luke but doesn’t tell us where to focus, or who to sympathise with, and there’s a sense of life being portrayed without plotted rules, essentially running onwards with no plan. It may have been more interesting to leave the movie in this form. The third section, however, ties things up, adds purpose, and whilst this does provide thematic closure, it makes the film – which up until now has been impressive for its fluidity – into frankly something too neat. It doesn’t help that the third section is the weakest, and the unusual structure as a whole upsets the movie’s pacing, making Pines feel considerably longer than it actually is. The jumps forward in time can be disorientating too and with the crossing genres – crime thriller, police procedural, family drama – it can be easy to lose focus.
Despite the issues with structure, the film does so much right, and there are hints of a masterpiece hiding here. It’s a dark and corrupting film, one which finds beauty in utter desolation, pushing its characters through a series of increasingly poor decisions and taking everything away from them. It’s a movie about masculinity and fatherhood, focusing on the implicit ‘maleness’ of its leads, and this is maleness at its worst, at its most stubborn, confrontational and desperate. Everything in Pines comes with weight and gravitas; it feels more like a novel than a movie and it’s surprising that it didn’t begin as a book. Cianfrance directs very well – crafting a movie based in reality but with depth and beauty – shots of Gosling riding his bike through forest roads are stunning, as Cianfrance isn’t afraid to let the movie pause and take in the scenery. But he can also be intense too – the bank robbery scenes in particular are sure to keep audiences on edge. The movie is also supported by a great soundtrack and some very natural dialogue.
The characters are very well written – we’re given perspective and their actions and mistakes are often justified to some degree. Of course, the cast are excellent. Ryan Gosling’s performance echoes James Dean’s character in Rebel without a Cause – Gosling is rapidly making a justified name for himself as a cinematic icon; he’s an old fashioned and fantastic actor, giving a tortured and tragic performance here; we get the sense of his Luke desperately meaning well but struggling to restrain his emotions, in a role both sad and unhinged. There are certain similarities to his character in Drive, though Luke is easier to understand and more human. Bradley Cooper is excellent too, a nice clean-cut counterpart to Gosling, we get the sense of his Avery also meaning well, but he suffers with stubbornness and a costly blind ambition. Ray Liotta crops up playing a threatening role, one which we’ve seen him play so many times before, but which frankly, he plays extremely well. The women – Mendes and Byrne – are short-changed by a no-girls-allowed plot, but both do well with the limited screen time they receive, and like their male counterparts, provide a nice thematic mirror of one another. Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan crop up towards the end, with DeHaan giving the superior performance. Unfortunately as we close on them, both actors pale in comparison to Cooper and Gosling.
The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t a fun movie and it’s a fairly long-winded, sprawling one, more suited to serious film fans than the average movie goer. It also struggles with its plot structure and has a weak third section, though it may be one of those movies which benefits from a second viewing. It is, however, also an incredibly well directed, well written movie, and very well acted by its cast – there are times when Pines almost crosses over into masterpiece territory; it’s held back by a few things, and feels like a dividing film. Some viewers will love the thematic and structural choices here. It’s certainly excellent as far as second movies go; Cianfrance will do great things in future.