In 2010 Derek Cianfrance burst onto the scene with Blue Valentine, a sobering film that simultaneously documents the birth and death of a marriage. Through his deft direction, Cianfrance crafted a film that masterfully establishes a balance between two lovers who play an equal part in gutting a relationship. As the film reaches its natural end -a family falls apart- we’re left to ponder the lasting impact a dissolving marriage will have on a child. Cianfrance certainly offers us a snapshot just before the credits roll, showing us a daughter painfully screaming for her father’s attention, but that’s as far as Blue Valentine goes in demonstrating the strains of parental variance. Deliberately or not, Cianfrance’s new film, The Place Beyond the Pines, acts as a spiritual sequel to Blue Valentine. Where Blue Valentine scratches at the surface of children altered by absentee parents, The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious, searing film about the lasting impact a father, in any form, can have on his children years down the line. Much like Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines plays more along the lines of a tragedy, but is a can’t miss film brimming with unbridled passion and an inescapable mood.
Our journey begins with an introduction to Handsome Luke (Ryan Gosling), a daredevil motorcyclist for a traveling circus. The night before his act is set to leave town, Luke runs into Romina (Eva Mendes), an ex-lover that secretly reared his child. Caught between his nomadic life and erasing the trappings of his own distant father, Luke defiantly leaves behind his act to provide for his son. Unfortunately for Luke, the role of provider doesn’t come easy. That is until he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a former bank robber turned mechanic. Under Robin’s tutelage, Luke’s unique skillset provides him with the means for achieving an influx of cash. Finally, Luke has the power to take care of his son, but his brazen life comes to a halt when a robbery goes awry. Enter in Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the man fate has chosen to halt Luke’s robbing ways. The two disparate men, who both have a one year old son waiting for them at home, become forever connected in a moment that defines both their legacies. A tale of death, resentment, and painful discovery unfurls thereafter as we see Luke and Avery’s sons come to terms with each of their father’s transgressions.
Cianfrance guides us to an explosive, yet fitting ending by exercising an ever-growing sense of dread in the film’s three acts. Cianfrance accomplishes this by letting us feel the desolate existence of Handsome Luke and Avery Cross. Every fear, every thread of anger, and every ounce of disappointment Cianfrance tethers to our very being. These men are beyond conflicted, but they’re aggressively working to excavate the demons that quietly creep in their restless minds. The work of Gosling and Cooper certainly exacerbate the rich characterizations Cianfrance has provided us. Gosling, in spite of his switch blade skills and gregarious tattoos, portrays Luke as a man who simply can’t get around the wind. Cooper, however, is a man whose life benefits from nepotism, but he wants to earn his place in the world by his own accord. Both Gosling and Cooper deliver fantastic performances that are devious, alienating, and painfully human. Echoing the haunting, sympathetic performances is an entrancing score from Mike Patton, who perfectly caps off emotionally gratifying scenes with a sonically dour orchestration composed of electric guitars, choral pieces, and suffocating keys.
Cianfrance is fortunate to have an immense amount of talent at his disposal, but in the end his ability allows The Place Beyond the Pines to transcend melodrama, and firmly implant itself in our minds. Cianfrance certainly didn’t make it easy on himself by crafting a film that wears the skin of varying genres, but his vision and execution is staggering. One moment, he orchestrates a white knuckle robbery getaway scene that hits us with excessive force, making it feel as if we’re sitting on Luke’s bike, with our hair blowing in the wind and cops nipping at our heels. In another moment, he channels the gritty spirit of a crime drama, where morality meekly gasps for air in a back alley. For as great as The Place Beyond the Pines is, it’s admittedly a robust tale that deserves another half hour to flesh out its last act to reach the level of a masterpiece. But the film’s one flaw doesn’t lessen its impact because, as a whole, The Place Beyond the Pines is an audacious endeavor about the paths fathers cut for their sons, and the potential for blood born burdens.