Director Derek Cianfrance already has his filmmaker stripes with his 2010 emotional-driven film Blue Valentine. With The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance sets himself apart as one of the finest directors of his generation by creating one of the best woven narratives about the legacy fathers leave to their sons and the affects those sons have to endure.
What could be classified as a generational film, The Place Beyond the Pines moves at first as a high energy crime film as it focuses on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed semi-outlaw stunt motorcycle driver that has arrived back to Schenectady, New York on a carnival tour only to find out a day before he has to pick up for the next stop that he will be leaving behind an infant son he unknowingly fathered with fling Romina (Eva Mendes). Instantly sparked with the need to act on this opportunity, he quits the carnival to stay and look after Romina and his son despite the fact that she’s involved with another man. Soon after he stumbles upon a job a weasel-esque character Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) suggests is perfect based upon Luke’s matched “skill set.”
Luke’s choices sets him in the direct line of sight for Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). From his encounter with Luke, Cross assumes a new identity and a different way of dealing with his own infant son than he once anticipated. Adjusting to life after the fateful encounter leaves Cross reeling in the second act, which ultimately effects every relationship he has in his life; especially with his son.
Magnificently, the third act slows down to a halt in a 15-year time shift. It sees two young men having a chance meeting, and striking up a unique friendship as they’re left to deal rather intensely with how the actions of their fathers have impacted their lives.
Upon first examination of Cianfrance’s work, going into Pines, one should expect an emotional punch to the gut, but, unlike his former works, Cianfrance expands on his frame playing with tone, settings, only to circle back around in the end. That’s not to say that Cianfrance leaves everything he’s done in his rear-view mirror. Like with Blue Valentine, Cianfrance perfectly captures a high-emotional family driven story. This time the filmmaker tackles motifs that see his characters deal with discovery of their relationships, origins, and their fathers.
Crafting a complex narrative that ranges in pacing, Cianfrance revisits the three act structure. Unlike a typical three act, he pushes this formula even further by re-engineering the pacing of the story. The first act carries all of the energy as it builds in reverse to inevitably settle into a slower, much darker tone in the second and third acts, with the story unfolding by the actions of its characters in the first.
Starting off with a high energy pace, as his camera captures the carnival’s flood of colors, its Gosling’s presence of masculinity and enigmatic darkness that has the director taking his camera on a stroll of various, long follow shots of the motorcycle stuntman. A sound-scape as much as it is a visual feast, Gosling’s tremendous performance completely takes up the screen in the same way the jolt of his blaring motorcycle draws attention.
He’s just as fascinating whether he’s goofing around with Romina and their son as he is doing tricks on his bike, Gosling once again shows just why he’s been nominated for accolades. He commands the screen with such an innate, dark, and sometimes-composed intensity, but in a way that also opens itself for character revelations due to Gosling’s high range of emotions. All the while we still root for his character, because he’s grounded even if it’s not the viewer’s reality. He’s relateable because Gosling is believable and could possibly sell playing a used car salesman at this point. It’s a quality he has in spades, and certainly in Pines more than ever. However, Gosling always leaves the viewer wanting more. That’s not for the lack of material, because not since Blue Valentine and Drive have we seen Gosling given such meaty material to play with, and it’s no coincidence that screenwriter and director Derek Cianfrance is on the other side of that.
Fluidly moving into a calmer second act is Bradley Cooper’s arc. Cooper turns out a modest but engaging performance as Avery Cross. He speaks every bit of his lines with so much conviction; it’s easy to forget that he’s 2011’s Sexiest Man Alive. While his performance in Silver Linings Playbook was probably his “real first” of many emotionally driven performances to come, in Pines Cooper brings the same energy to his character and is just as deserving of recognition as Gosling.
If there’s a surprising performance that makes its mark throughout all three acts, it’s Eva Mendes. Mendes, who before has rested comfortably in the “girlfriend” roles, really extends herself past anything she’s ever done before. While this role could have been unforgettable, Mendes utilizes the subject material, and comes off as a sympathetic character stuck in anguish and utter turmoil in wanting better for her son.
It’s all of this and so much more that make Cianfrance’s portrait on parenthood the most unique one yet. From its experimental narrative to its dominating performances, The Place Beyond the Pines is one that ebbs and flows so perfectly and painfully, it’s almost too good to see it all end and begin again.
The Place Beyond the Pines hits select theaters on March 29.
Check out the trailer below: