They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
– Philip Larkin
With blunt simplicity, the esteemed British poet sums up generation after generation of family life. In his latest film, The Place Beyond The Pines, Derek Cianfrance takes Larkin’s verse to heart. The writer-director’s breakthrough film Blue Valentine established him as a film maker with a grip on the heart strings, preying on the uncertainties and paranoia of a flailing relationship. It was an unusual film in that it spanned across a large time frame, detailing the highs and lows of a marriage in uncompromising detail. There was more in common with the character driven films of ’70’s Hollywood that Bob Rafelson and John Cassavetes used to make.
While Blue Valentine flourished in its intimacy, here Cianfrance is working with a much bigger canvas and the strokes are much broader. The film essentially revolves around three sections, focusing on the divergent fortunes of two families whose lives seep in and out of one another. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a tearaway stunt motorcyclist performing around the country. When one of his flings with Romina (Eva Mendes) results in a child, Luke takes it upon himself to settle down in Schenectady, New York and try to provide for his new son. Finding his skill set limited, Luke is persuaded by petty criminal Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to use his driving experience to rob the local banks.
Meanwhile, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is a young rookie officer eager to make his mark on the world. His background in law and a dedication to his young family makes him an anomaly in a corrupt police department, thus beginning his struggle to maintain a clear conscience in the face of amoral practice. A chance encounter with Luke’s reckless bank robber leads the two on a mammoth saga that spans the generations. The Place Beyond The Pines is an ambitious, richly layered film that excels both as a crime saga and a family drama.
Gosling, the go to heart throb of indie cinema, gives a typically commanding performance as Luke. He seems to have mastered the ‘cocky young player with the damaged soul’ to perfection. While his role is relatively short, he casts a shadow over the rest of the film that leaves the audience looking back toward him for answers. Bradley Cooper is nuanced and heartfelt, conveying the inner angst of someone fighting against the system and his own inner demons. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Mendelsohn’s needy loner and Ray Liotta’s calculating officer.
Cianfrance again opts for an almost documentary like aesthetic, the shaky camera work mirroring the rawness of the characters emotions. He also proves himself as an able director of action; the motorcycle scenes are filmed with a blistering ferocity and tension. Alternative icon Mike Patton delivers an affecting, offbeat score, relying on melancholic, echoing piano notes and ominous guitar interludes to maintain the ambience. Elsewhere an achingly beautiful Ennio Morricone piece elevates scenes of catharsis to an almost religious fervour.
The Place Beyond The Pines is not a perfect film; the final section lacks the gravitas as the two that went before it, and is a little too neat its climax. If the film had previously established the cyclical effects of a damaged upbringing, then the third act makes it all too literal. However, its sprawling, ambitious scope is admirable and invigorating, the characters vivid and human and the narrative conflicts juicy and engaging. Cianfrance achieves a great juggling act of realistic personal drama and operatic crime thrills. Now Cianfrance has established himself at this level, it’s exciting to see where he will go next.