If ever you wanted to see the film as novel, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is there to satisfy your cinematic-cum-literary hunger. Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the searing “Blue Valentine” moves from close-up to long shot, taking in multiple generations over the course of its two hour and 20 minute runtime. It could even be argued that the film has not one, not two, but a whopping three protagonists.
Cianfrance’s story is peerless in terms of sheer ambition, and I give him great credit on those grounds. I did feel, however, that he often sacrificed depth for breadth. Rather than go fully into each of the three leading men of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” he cuts out a level too early in their development to squeeze each story into a film of bearable length. While each have full and completely developed arcs, I could never totally get on board with the film because I didn’t feel that I knew the characters.
Even in spite of the sometimes slippery connection, something tells me I will forever be haunted by the eerie calm of the paralleled hovering shots of Ryan Gosling’s Luke Lanton, and then his son, Dane DeHaan’s Jason, riding their motorcycle down a twisting rural road. Even from such a height, there’s a great deal of proximity and intimacy that Cianfrance manages to communicate in those brief interludes.
His film has the technical craftsmanship to match the epic scope of the story, particularly the eerie and somber photography of Sean Bobbitt (responsible for Steve McQueen’s immaculately shot “Hunger” and “Shame”). Editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane take the chilling imagery and splice it poetically until it feels like cinematic Homeric verse.
Not since Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling 1999 drama “Magnolia” has anyone captured the complexities of father-son relationships as adeptly as Cianfrance. His film tackles some of the oldest themes in literature, yet they somehow feel fresh and worthy of immediate consideration. The way in which he forcefully proposes how we all become our parents save extraordinary acts of individual agency without force-feeding us is truly remarkable.
In other words, expect something about as fatalistic and morose as “Blue Valentine.” Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” follows the visibly flawed but secretly noble motorcyclist-turned-bank robber Luke Lanton (Gosling) as his life collides with the visibly noble but secretly flawed rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). While they’re on opposite sides of the law, both men are just trying to provide for their wives and infant sons. Both make mistakes and wade into morally turbulent grounds, fodder for our minds as we debate which – if either – men is the film’s hero.
Cianfrance brilliantly ends with a coda focusing on their two sons, DeHaan’s Jason and Emory Cohen’s AJ Cross. We see them as both paternal product and antithesis, left to fulfill and pick up the pieces of their fathers. It’s a riveting way to bring all the conflict in “The Place Beyond the Pines” to a head without necessarily providing true closure or resolution. The film is about themes and ideas bigger than its characters, and it would be pretentious and wrong for Cianfrance to put some kind of final punctation on millennia of discussion.
But even as it resists definitive answers, “The Place Beyond the Pines” feels complete when the final showdown between its two towering performers, Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan, dissipates. It’s a film that makes its central questions feel fresh as if they were just being asked for the first time. Cianfrance’s hefty plot full begs for prolonged wrestling with its provocative moral complexities, and it provides plenty of fodder for reconsideration of some of literature’s oldest questions. B+ /