Writer-director Derek Cianfrance made a nice name for himself back in 2010 with his indie depression-fest "Blue Valentine." The film told the story of a collapsing married couple – mixed with flashbacks to their cute origins for maximum tragic effect – with such brutal honesty and intimacy that the MPAA almost gave it a NC-17 rating basically because it was too painful to watch.
His follow-up, "The Place Beyond the Pines," represents a massive leap for the young director. The movie still has the intimacy that made "Blue Valentine" so emotionally potent, but it’s also a big, bold crime epic, tracing its way across two generations through multiple storylines.
Its lofty aspirations come with their share of flaws, but they also come with a sense of exhilaration. To borrow a phrase from one of the film’s costars, it rides like lightning but avoids crashing like thunder.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" tells three intertwined stories of fathers and sons connected through the consequences of their choices. Cianfrance favorite Ryan Gosling stars as Luke, a star stunt motorcycle driver for a travelling carnival. While the carnival makes a routine stop in Schenectady, New York (the origins of the town’s name gives the film its title), he reconnects with a fling from the past (Eva Mendes) who, unbeknownst to Luke, is raising his child.
When he finds out about his secret son, he ditches the carnival in order to stay in Schenectady and support his son. Unfortunately, his only skill is driving motorcycles fast, an item that doesn’t impress on too many resumes. Under the tutelage of a loner mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn, continuing his streak of playing characters who don’t shower), Luke begins robbing banks, which sets him on a collision course with Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, who doesn’t show up until about the 45-minute mark).
Their dramatic meeting, thrillingly captured by Cianfrance, leaves Avery – the son of a politician – a shaken hero, as well as our new protagonist. He’s haunted by the boy Luke left behind so much that he struggles to look at his own son. Avery doesn’t have much time to focus on family issues (including his wife Rose Byrne, who is very good in her few scenes), however, as corruption in his department – led by a menacing Ray Liotta – forces him into his father’s footsteps in politics.
It’s only until 15 years later when Avery must truly face his son, now a Jersey Shore-looking druggie delinquent. He must also face the consequences of his showdown with Luke when, in a cruel twist of fate, his son’s new friend Jason (Dane DeHaan from "Chronicle") turns out to be the renegade bank robber’s son.
The three-part script – written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder – will almost assuredly test the patience of many casual moviegoers. It’s a long film, coming in at just under two and a half hours, that paces itself and has no interest in pleasing its viewers.
Important characters drop in and out, and as the chapters unfold, the movie moves further away from more standard crime movie fare – motorcycle chases, bank robberies, corrupt cops – into the kind of bruising intimate family drama Cianfrance made his name with.
For those willing to go for the ride, however, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is an invigorating glance at an impressive new director taking his previously proven skills and evolving them before audience’s eyes.
Cianfrance is still terrific with actors, getting great performances out of every member of his cast (namely his two male leads and DeHaan, who will be playing Harry Osborn in next year’s "Amazing Spider-Man 2"). His use of music – Grizzly Bear’s soundtrack for "Blue Valentine," Mike Patton’s score here – is hauntingly perfect, and he hasn’t lost his touch with characters either. The emotions always feel raw and real, even if some of the plot’s mechanics feel less so.
Cianfrance’s tale of fathers, sons and consequences takes these known qualities and takes them in a big, bold new direction. His visual vocabulary has grown smartly, mixing shallow focus that puts the attention squarely on the characters with mesmerizing tracking shots and vigorously filmed motorcycle chases that are better crafted than most action movies.
The signature emotional intensity is there as well – combined with a new capability for visceral thrills – but on a significantly larger, grander scale.
As a new writer-director, Cianfrance is still going through his fair share of growing pains, mainly in the storytelling department. Some of the plot developments, such as the sons’ friendship in the last third and the corrupt cops, feel contrived.
The story is an upgrade from the mostly plotless (and therefore momentum-devoid) "Blue Valentine," but the characters and plot developments still sometimes seem motivated by the screenwriters’ need to move their chess pieces into place rather than real behavior.
These only feel like big issues, though, because "The Place Beyond the Pines" dares to be big. It has the ambition – a rare quality to find in most Hollywood movies – to be one of the best of the year. It’ll have to settle for being merely really good.
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