After his emotionally bruising, Cassavettes-esque debut Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance delivered the ambitious crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines, which he co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, a unique and sprawling narrative that concentrates on a variety of subjects and themes: Fathers and son, husbands and wives, the criminal life, family dynamics, politics, law enforcement, and above all else – hard earned feelings. Everyone in this movie FEELS something strong – it’s one of Cianfrance’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker and storyteller – his ability to convey how his characters are feeling. This is a multi-strand effort that spans generations, constantly reaching for the same cinematic breadth and scope of something like Michael Cimino’s epic masterpiece The Deer Hunter. And while The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t quite reach those immortal heights, it’s still a finely textured and multilayered piece of work that begs reconsideration after it was passed off in March of 2013 as a hard to classify in-betweener by a seemingly reluctant studio.
Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, super greasy Ben Mendelsohn(!), Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan, and Rose Byrne all delivered terrific performances in this upstate NY set drama that focuses on the consequences of various choices made by the wide swath of characters. Gosling is a career criminal who learns that he has fathered a child with an ex-girlfriend, played by the sultry Mendes, and what’s asked of him as an actor plays well to his strengths as a performer. Gosling excels when portraying insular men of action, the quiet type given to sudden fits of explosive rage, and here he’s given a juicy role that takes some unexpected turns, and I loved how he wasn’t afraid to be unsympathetic. Cooper, a good cop and stand-up family man who also happens to have political aspirations, is the kind of guy who is always trying to do the correct thing. And when he intersects with Gosling, their lives changes in ways that neither man could ever expect.
There’s a BIG WOW! moment about half way through The Place Beyond the Pines, and I dare not spoil it, but it’s at this point that the film shifts gears, flashes forward some years, and you’re introduced to the children of the various adult characters that have previously been established. It’s a bold, possibly jarring transition but Cianfrance handles it gracefully, allowing the film to progress at a leisurely but never flagging pace; he never confuses detail for bloat. He also, wisely, studs the film with visceral bits of action (the various robberies that Gosling commits and the subsequent getaways are the very definition of thrilling) that are shot with a breathtaking immediacy by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, Shame). Cianfrance is extremely strong with his visuals, but he’s just as attuned to his words, so the film has a sense of macho poetry to some of its interludes. Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, and Rose Byrne all offer up strong supporting performances, while the somber score by Mike Patton kept the mood appropriately downbeat.
Smartly, The Place Beyond the Pines ends on a moment of introspection rather than clichéd violent bombast, which easily could have occurred if the film were the creation of a less mature voice. However, if I had one complaint about the film, it’s that I wished it were even longer. I wanted more time with these characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a three hour (or longer) cut lives somewhere in a vault. At two and a half hours, the film feels complete, if a bit rushed towards the end, and because Cianfrance is aiming SO large and big with this story, I wanted more time for everything to breathe and expand. In any case, this is a tragically underrated movie, one that slipped by a large swath of the movie-going population, but a film that’s rich and serious and novelistic and incredibly solid at the core.