Derek Cianfrance announced himself as a director of real craft and as a writer with a particular flair for character with the brilliantly sombre love story Blue Valentine. The Place Beyond the Pines reunites Cianfrance with Blue Valentine’s lead Ryan Gosling, a deft decision which elevates this sprawling and unconventional triptych to sumptuous heights. Hollywood is oft criticised for being staid and unoriginal, obsessed with remakes and never-ending sequels, so it’s a refreshing relief when a film like this comes along and blows off the cobwebs, because The Place Beyond the Pines is brimming with unabated quality.
Circus stunt rider Luke Glanton (a soaring Gosling) is a veritable lone wolf, directionless and reckless, whose life takes a sudden turn when he encounters old flame Romina (an impressive Mendes) who presents him with a son. Conflicted but duty bound, Glanton embraces the responsibility and sets about providing for them. A friendly mechanic Robin (Mendelsohn) takes Glanton on as an apprentice, but it’s not long before his shady motives rear their ugly head and he makes a criminal proposition that has far reaching cross generational consequences.
From the outset, Cianfrance imbues his picture with a stripped down, no frills look that lends proceedings a degree of veracity and swamps it in feeling and emotion. His script too is both pithy and authentic, despite at times veering into almost lyrical territory. But, as with Blue Valentine, Cianfrance displays verve at adding real depth to his characters. Despite appearances, Glanton is mired in conflicted fragility; this is a man willing to do whatever it takes to give his son the life he feels he deserves, at whatever cost to himself.
His recklessness and edgy unpredictability eventually result in mistakes and set him on an auspicious path that results in an encounter with twitchy rookie cop Avery Cross (Cooper in perhaps his finest performance to date). From here Cianfrance thrusts his audience into Avery’s story, a seamless continuation of the overarching narrative that begins to explore the moments and decisions that impact on families.
Ostensibly, Cross is the antithesis of Glanton, a clean cut cop with an unwavering blue streak running through him. Yet there are telling parallels between these two seemingly different men who are inherently driven by a sense of doing the right thing. Whilst Glanton does what he has to do to care for his son at any cost, Cross is willing to stand up to the explicit corruption he sees within his own department, driven by the ruthless DeLuca (a sneering Liotta), even if it’s to his detriment. And like Glanton, Cross’s decisions have a resounding effect on his family; his relationship with wife Jennifer (Byrne) and his son suffering as a result.
As the narrative unfolds and enters its third act, it’s always enthralling, although Cianfrance does signpost where his tale might be heading. As debts are settled and choices are made it becomes clear how one moment can have such a significant impact on the lives of others.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a didactic yarn on a grand scale, but one that always feel intimate, urgent and important. It’s a heartfelt triumph, shot with a sumptuous eye and superbly acted. Gosling and Cooper are exemplary co-leads, whilst Mendelsohn and Mendes provide compelling support. But this is defiantly and wholeheartedly Cianfrance’s picture, his story, his vision and ultimately his success.