The Place Beyond the Pines is the third feature film for director Derek Cianfrance, and follows his lauded relationship drama Blue Valentine. Though Cianfrance reprises several aspects of that film, including themes of wounded masculinity and star Ryan Gosling, Pines is an interesting expansion of the director’s range and ambition. The film is a self-declared triptych, and though the story is geographically lashed to a small upstate town, it sprawls across generations over its two-plus hours. That town is Schenectady, New York, an Iroquois name for which the film’s title is a loose translation. Co-writer Ben Coccio is from Schenectady and Cianfrance has family there, and their connection to the town apparently played a large role in the shaping of the story as well as the look and tone of the film. Still, if the press notes hadn’t helpfully pointed this out the title would have remained obscure to me. The drama of The Place Beyond the Pines has less to do with place than with interior worlds, and of legacies passed from fathers to sons. Cianfrance’s film is a moody, shifting creation, but a compelling one, and a great platform for the talented cast.
The first third of Pines centers on Gosling’s Luke, a daredevil stunt motorcyclist who performs with a traveling carnival. His doleful, brooding intensity is tempered by a kind of punk uniform of bleached hair, ripped t-shirts, and tattoos. Comparisons to Gosling’s taciturn lead in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive are inevitable, but his silence was part of that film’s artful Euro-synth aesthetic, while Pines is firmly invested in American mythology. When Luke and the carnival roll into Schenectedy, he reconnects with an old lover Romina (Eva Mendes) and discovers that they have an infant son together. Luke impulsively quits the carnival to stick around, with the naïve expectation that he can claim his place with what he seems to consider his “family.” He doesn’t know how to back up this willful, selfish claim, but Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a mechanic at a local garage, conveniently offers Luke a job and a trailer to live in. In moments like this Pines gets somewhat snared by plot transitions, but the performances of Gosling and especially Mendelsohn sell us on this relationship. This is the upside of Pines: if the dialogue is occasionally wooden, Cianfrance is skilled at getting strong performances from his cast (only Mendes seems conspicuously out of place, too Hollywood thin and well-complectioned to read as working-class).
When Robin’s garage fails to bring in the necessary money, he talks Luke into robbing banks with him using Luke’s motorcycle skills to make a quick escape. This injects some well-paced action into the drama, and gives a lift to Luke’s fortunes, until his jealous temper causes him to beat up Romina’s new boyfriend. Gosling needs few words to communicate Luke’s bewilderment and shame at his impulsive, destructive behavior. His temperament isn’t suited to the slow and methodical work of change, and Luke goes for a hubristic double-robbery that even Robin refuses to participate in. It goes badly, and the ensuing police chase introduces us to Bradley Cooper’s rookie police officer Avery. Here the film abruptly shifts tone and focus as it picks up on Avery’s story. While Cianfrance sets Avery up as a foil for Luke, he also manages to resist easy distinctions between the outlaw and the good man on the right side of the law. Avery is a shaky hero at best, his good intentions quickly challenged and undermined by the corruption in his police department.
The second part of Pines has very mild hints of Scorsese, not only because it features a menacing Ray Liotta as a crooked cop. I enjoyed the second part of the film, though it meanders more than it needs to before setting up the final act. This third part takes us into the future, when Luke and Avery’s sons are in high school. Avery is now the District Attorney, and ashamed of his wannabe thug son A.J. (Emory Cohen). Dane DeHaan plays Luke’s grown son Jason, a wounded loner reminiscent of his role in Chronicle. DeHaan looks eerily like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, and, like Mendelsohn, steals every scene he’s in. That these two sons will collide and be forced to play out their fathers’ unresolved business is inevitable. Still, it’s executed with nice restraint, suspense, and even humor before ending with a melodramatic flourish.
In the end The Place Beyond the Pines feels rushed, even at its long running time. Cianfrance’s use of the triptych structure is interesting, though I couldn’t help but feel the story would be better suited to a miniseries. It’s a rich world, but we never get the chance to explore each of these three scenarios to the full extent they would allow. Mike Patton’s score provides a musical through-line, as does the expressive camerawork of DP Sean Bobbitt. Pines further distinguishes Cianfrance as a director that actors want to work with, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his range and ambition (and budgets) continue to grow in the future.