In Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious second feature – following 2010’s Blue Valentine – Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper star as disparate fathers whose lives intersect in Schenectady, New York State.
Although on the surface The Place Beyond the Pines bears little resemblance to Cianfrance’s previous film – beyond the fact that it also stars Ryan Gosling – its method for dealing with its themes is actually comparable. In Blue Valentine, the focus was a central relationship intercut between two time periods, designed to show how significant the passage of time can be; in The Place Beyond the Pines, the narrative structure is more linear, but the treatment of the central theme – in this case fathers and sons, and the legacies we leave for new generations – does, in some ways, echo the earlier film.
That said, the tone is different. We begin with a fantastic tracking shot as Luke Glanton (Gosling) makes his way through a funfair, where he will soon demonstrate his motorcycle skills for a shrieking audience. After the show he bumps into an old flame, Romina (played by Eva Mendes), and discovers that he has a baby son by her. Breaking out of his loner lifestyle, Luke gets drawn into robbing banks as a way of ‘providing’ for his new family, ignoring the fact that Romina has a new boyfriend (Mahershala Ali), who doesn’t appreciate Luke showing up at his house all the time.
This opening segment, in which Gosling’s charismatic anti-hero Luke attempts to entreat his way into the family he didn’t know he had, is terrific. Cianfrance approaches it with admirable confidence and style, and we get an hour or so of gorgeously shot, vibrantly active and emotionally affecting cinema.
It’s at this point that Cianfrance expands his canvas outwards to include Bradley Cooper’s earnest cop Avery Cross, whose home life – with his young son and wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) – appears to be under stress, what with media attention over his police exploits and suggestions from his father that he should switch careers. The tone of the film changes significantly here, moving through dramatic and cop-thriller elements, while the opening feels almost like a well-meaning exploitation flick. There’s a further shift in store, too, when the film jumps forward in time for an extended coda involving a new generation of protagonists.
It’s little wonder that the film struggles to maintain a level of consistency, given how much it takes on. There is a feeling that it would have made for a strong, self-contained story, but the decision to broaden the scope and bring in new characters actually diminishes the effect of the central idea – fathers and sons. You can see why the director, who also co-wrote the film, chose to take the story down this path – after all, the idea of legacies left by fathers would seem to fit into a wide-reaching context – but in actual fact the conclusion feels contrived and ironically lacks the emotional heft of the more refined, focused first act. The tonal inconsistencies when the film changes acts serve to break up what might have been a cohesive and gripping whole.
The performances, however, are strong throughout, particularly from Gosling and Mendes, and are backed up by lush location photography and a wonderfully varied score by Mike Patton, which isn’t afraid to take some sonic risks between flourishes of the lovely piano piece that accompanies the film’s trailer.
In shooting for so much, Cianfrance unfortunately misses a couple of key targets with The Place Beyond the Pines. But he doesn’t miss them by much, and the ones he hits he hits with aplomb. It makes for a piece that, while it feels frustratingly disjointed, also possesses moments of real power.