Director Derek Cianfrance has taken a shine to Ryan Gosling; it’s clear in interviews, as both he and the celebrated actor trot out the anecdote behind this film’s story – a mutual fascination with the idea of committing a bank robbery, on a motorcycle, and dealing with the consequences, or lack thereof. This is their second feature together, after the claustrophobic investigation into love that was Blue Valentine (2010), but Cianfrance is not re-treading old ground here, with the scope far wider, and the cast more expansive.
The Place Beyond The Pines is a triptych, a film in three distinct parts, each focussing on a different member of a set of closely connected cast of characters. The most heavily advertised have been the drifter Luke, played with vulnerability and nuance by Gosling, and the ambitious small-town cop Avery, brought to life by Bradley Cooper in a performance that arguably outdoes his recent Oscar-nominated turn for David O’Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Indeed, these are also the pair who most stay in the mind after the film closes, and it is unfortunate that the promising young actor Dane DeHaan’s gritty portrayal of the isolated and troubled teenager Jason is situated in the third of the film which feels the least accomplished, if only by comparison with the stellar opening two parts. The rest of the cast live up to the stars’ turns as well, with Ray Liotta turning in yet another ‘believable scumbag’ tour de force, and Ben Mendelsohn reclaiming the griminess that he owned so totally in Killing Them Softly last year as Luke’s friend, employer and enabler.
The plot is too integral to the rhythm of the film to give away, but the aforementioned bank robberies which Luke embarks upon create a set of consequences which ripple through the film’s chronology, including an abrupt time-skip, to create a powerful sense of consequence and continuity. An equally overriding theme is that of fatherhood, and the different ways sons are affected by the levels of presence they feel from their dads, with all of the central male characters having a backstory to this effect, whether it be explicit or hinted at.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose recent turns with Steve McQueen for Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008) earned him praise, featuring the beautiful landscape around Shenectady, New York, the Native American name of which town gives the film its translated title, in contrast with the griminess of parts of the town itself. Certain moments stand out, from the opening shot following Luke from his caravan to the daredevil act he performs for a local circuit in one long take, without glimpsing his face until he straps his helmet on, perfectly exhibiting his enigmatic presence, to the repeated instances of sullen bike rides on forest roads, linking characters who have never properly met. The latter is also one of the standout instances for the soundtrack, expertly using the edited version of Mike Patton’s “The Snow Angel” featured in the trailer, to evoke the emotional turmoil of the lonely characters. The urgency of the bank robberies, meanwhile, put the efforts of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers chicken shack heist to shame, the high-pitched panic in Gosling’s voice in isolation absurd, but in the context revealing just how much of a rush the experience is for him. That his reaction after his first success is to plaster his friend’s truck in vomit feels believable in a way that Korine’s neon-soaked vision never achieves.
Cianfrance’s latest film is sweeping and affecting, its three-part vision of paternity and responsibility one which will stay with you. The final part is unfortunately somewhat less convincing than what precedes it, but important to complete the film’s message, and ultimately does little to bring the film down from the heights of Gosling, Cooper et al.’s performances.