The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t Blue Valentine. Derek Cianfrance makes that clear in the film’s first moments as a Balisong clicks open and closed in the tense hands of a tattoo-laden Ryan Gosling before he zips around a metal globe as a motorcycle sideshow. The filmmaker’s latest isn’t another intimate investigation; it’s a multi-generational epic, a gorgeously sprawling examination into the nature of choice. Nevertheless, it’s Valentine’s spiritual offspring, a movement out of the worlds of love’s attraction and demise, and into the world of fathers, sons and consequences.
This is romanticism meets reality, from the title to the final moments. “The place beyond the pines” is a loose translation of the Mohawk word that became Schenectady, and Cianfrance offers a romanticized version of the old manufacturing town in Upstate New York, from a script written by himself and Schenectady native Ben Coccio. The three-part saga plays out under the still-glowing lights of GE, and Cianfrance’s camera lingers on the white, wood-sided homes of the area and ignores the commercialized tracts, save for one well-placed joke.
Luke (Gosling) is the pretty boy gone bad, a soft face and bleached surfer mop juxtaposed against a harrowing life map of amateurly inked tattoos including a bleeding knife placed just where a tear might fall. He rides from town to town, a motorcycle-riding sideshow performer who quits the life upon the discovery that he has a son with his local flirtation, Romina (Eva Mendes). It’s a noble gesture that has little place in the real world – mother and son already live with more a stable and dependable man that Luke could never be.
But Romina fails to kill her still-potent attraction, leaving Luke that glimmer of dangerous hope. He struggles with his minimum-wage life, barraging Romina with idealized dreams he can never make real. When friend and boss Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) suggests robbing a bank, it isn’t long before Luke agrees and becomes obsessed and desperate. This pits Gosling against costar Bradley Cooper (as too-smart-for-his-own-good cop Avery Cross) and pushes the film out of the confines of one arc and into a three-act epic saga best experienced blindly.
While Cianfrance is thematically focused on father and son, the film resonates more for its explorations of choice, which thanks to Mike Patton’s score, weighs in the air with every passing moment. One wrong decision begets the next, often with hidden morality and understandable fear. Luke and Avery, it turns out, are alike in many ways – easily getting wrapped up in worlds they should avoid, until virtuous intentions mean nothing. The robber resembles the cop and vice versa; notions of good and bad begin to blur – sometimes to the point that history even repeats itself. In a small town far from the populated invisibility of the big city, their choices make waves that reverberate within their families and communities for years.
Great performances ground this sprawling tale, with passing years never getting in the way of engagement like other festival selection Midnight’s Children. Dane DeHaan, in particular, stuns with his portrayal of Luke’s son at 15. So much is packed into his very mannerisms that within minutes you understand everything you need to know about him. Sadly, as a tale of fathers and sons, the female talent gets little to do. Rose Byrne has it worst, completely wasted and almost irrelevant as Cross’ wife, while Mendes gets a bit more, taking a role that first seems like her Ghost Rider character caught in the wrong film, but ultimately becomes the sad visage of a woman caught in bad choices.
What might be more exciting than the story itself is the cinematic experience. It’s exhilarating to get pulled into a story that grows bigger and bigger in scope without losing its heart or focus, a Godfather-esque journey free of pomp, circumstance, and super-tights. Like Blue Valentine, it took Cianfrance years to get this made. One can only hope that after two great films, Hollywood finally takes notice.