I have only had the pleasure of seeing two of Derek Cianfrance’s feature films, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. His first film, Brother Tied, has been a continuing hassle to get a hold of (I don’t believe it was ever distributed). Its unavailability is quite disappointing considering the quality of his latest movies, including his documentary work. His films have the utmost reverence to the art of cinema. It’s surprisingly rare to see movies handled with such poise and dedication. Blue Valentine was a marvelous story that focused on the beginning of a young couple’s relationship and the eventual strained end years later. Its scope was small and personal, rarely leaving one of the couples’ points of view. Cianfrance expands his scope slightly with The Place Beyond the Pines, where crime and corruption feature heavily.
While maintaining a very personal story, The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic. The film follows the families of two men and their families. First is Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carnival stuntman who learns at the beginning of the film that he is a father. He is tasked with dealing with the revelation and attempting to create a connection with his one night stand Romina (Eva Mendes) and his infant son (Anthony Pizza). This proves difficult with there being a new man (Mahershala Ali) and Luke’s financial status. With the help of his employer and friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke begins to rob banks. The second man, Avery (Bradley Cooper), is a young police officer who also has a new born son (Travis and Trevor Jackson Campbell), but with a seemingly more stable relationship with the mother (Rose Byrne). Despite having the opportunity to be a successful lawyer, he opts to stay a low ranking police officer where he begins to see corruption and malice throughout the force.
Saying anything more than what is shown in the trailer would be detrimental to the film. The trailer does so much to convene themes in the story without ruining the film. It’s much more difficult to speak about The Place Beyond the Pines than Blue Valentine (which I will hopefully do very soon). Blue Valentine is very upfront about the narrative style and message it will be delivering. The jumps between the young and older couple are completely expected, making any surprises to come from the actors and slight plot manipulations. Don’t get me wrong, Blue Valentine is filled with moments that deviate from the expected, but The Place Beyond the Pines is somehow a completely different film than what is in the trailer. Not to say the trailer is misleading, rather it holds far more back than it shows up front. So instead of ruining plot elements and exposing the film’s narrative style and structure, I will talk mostly about themes and certain scenes that expound the film. I’m sure the more apt reader will be able to gleam certain elements about the film that I do not mean to uncover, but I can almost assure you they will be invalid assumptions.
Fatherhood seems to be one of the more tangible themes in the film. The leads react to their children and wives in very different ways. Avery is distant from his son. While the distance is due to the stresses of being a police officer, it becomes clear that Avery is unable to have an emotional connection with his son. One key scene shows Avery staring blankly at his son, completely detached from any fatherly emotion he may have once had. Avery’s relationship with his wife Jennifer is also strained, again due to Avery’s unrelenting devotion to his work. There is not a moment with the two in the film that is not tense or filled with passive aggressiveness. Luke is on the other end of the spectrum. His connection to his son’s mother is rough but always on the surface. There is a love there that is never undermined. The same goes for his son. During a very tender moment, Luke and Romina lay in bed embracing. The camera is focused on Romina while Luke questions her about their son Jason’s likes and dislikes. Luke asks if Jason had ever eaten ice cream, because if he hasn’t, Luke would like to be the first to give it to him. That way, every time Jason eats ice cream, he’ll think of his father. As Luke speaks, Romina begins to weep, and the camera slowly shifts focus to Luke. It’s a powerful scene, one that is handled so elegantly by the actors and Cianfrance.
Another important theme of Pines is that of personal responsibility and its implications. Throughout the first two thirds of the film, we are treated to two kinds of people, those who accept it wholeheartedly and those who revel in it. There are far more depictions of those who revel in personal responsibility, taking it only when it benefits them and shunning it at a moment’s notice. The other set, those who accept personal responsibility almost to a fault, are few and far between. These men take any consequences that may be heading their way, never backing down like the other set. This is how the film initially presents its stance on responsibility, very narrow and black and white. However, the third act of Pines complicates the stance, allowing for more nuanced interpretations. There isn’t an absolute right or wrong, but the shade of grey that results at the film’s end is lighter than it is dark.
Everyone in the film gives stunning performances, especially Mendelsohn who has finally been getting his due as one of the best character actors around. He’s been in quite a few films recently, always displaying a great understanding of the parts he plays. Gosling and Cooper as the leads are phenomenal. They both offer very complex performances, especially Cooper who one ups himself film after film. No one falters or over acts, that’s not what this film is about. The Place Beyond the Pines follows a “less is more” philosophy. There are chase scenes and adrenaline filed moments, but they are realistic and natural. They aren’t stylistic, but true to life and more frightening because of it.
Please go see this film. I have only mentioned two thirds of the film, neglecting some very beautiful moments, the relevance of the title, and some top notch acting from two other actors. But again, the less you know before going into this, the better. As of this posting it is currently playing in select theaters. Don’t miss out on a great film.