Blue Valentine director, Derek Cianfrance reunites with the white-hot, Ryan Gosling for this ambitiously epic six degrees of separation opus, which charts multiple familial generations against a canvas of Shakespearean plot mechanics-come-backwater Americana.
Gosling plays carnival stuntman, Luke; a tattooed, cigarette smoking traveller, with his only constraints in life being the metal cage around which he weaves his motorcycle at breakneck speeds to impress paying customers. It’s his relationship with waitress, Romina (Eva Mendes), and the revelation of a child he never knew he had, that is the catalyst for this saga. Fatherhood forces him to abandon his nomadic ways and utilise his unique skills to rob local banks. Fate then dictates that his path crosses with rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), a showdown which will irreparably change both theirs and the lives of generations to come.
Cianfrance has made a film that will leave an indelible impression upon you; both throughout the movie and as you digest it when the lights have come up.
Visually, it is both stylishly intimate, with the opening shot tracking Gosling through the carnival razzmatazz, a thing of serene exquisiteness, and sweepingly grand, as the story opens up geographically and narratively to reveal iconic American vistas. But it’s the vehicular sequences which are perhaps the most surprising; a cemetery pursuit is filmed with an on-board kineticism to rival any car chase in recent memory. It’s break taking stuff.
The story has a timeless quality about it, with elements of some of the great staples of American culture evident throughout; part road movie, rebellious protagonists who scrap below the bread line as they struggle to adhere to the notion of an American dream, and the patriarchal responsibilities placed on them by society. A lot of the narrative drive during the film comes from the dynamics of a father/son relationship.
Excelling as this icon of disenfranchised masculinity is Gosling. Some may ask whether this is much of a stretch, bar riding a bike as opposed to driving a car, to his stuntman from Drive. The answer is yes. Here he is a much more rounded character, rather than the guarded singular force of Refn’s protagonist. But it’s not just his movie, and much like every other aspect of the story, time is afforded for other themes and people to grow into it. Cooper, initially coming across as a little miscast, backs up his Silver Linings turn to great effect, Liotta’s brief appearance makes more of an impact than anything he’s done for a long time, and the late appearance of the impressive Dane DeHane (Chronicle, Lawless) makes sure that the film maintains a strong emotional core, despite the jarring time-shifts.
Having said that, and with the patriarchal theme being the dominant one, the women do get short-shrift, with Mendes quickly vanishing from proceedings, and Rose Byrne handed a thankless task as expository wife.
The events are sometimes extremely contrived, and require a suspension of belief from the audience, but they work satisfactorily, and whilst the 3rd act may not pack the punch of the first two, so much so that some may see it as a huge imbalance of quality and style, the overall arc is moving, wonderfully told, and wholly fulfilling.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful, bloated cinematic tapestry which unfolds in the tradition of some of the greatest American fables, as well as conforming to many of their clichés. It’s achingly close to being a masterpiece, but has enough signifiers to hint that Cianfrance will make many of those in the years to come. Unmissable