Of all the films arriving at TIFF this year, few are premiering under such an air of mystery as Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond The Pines." With only a couple of official images, but no posters or trailers, the tone and scope of the movie remained under wraps. Following "Blue Valentine," would the film be a similarly intimate and narrowly focused story or something completely different? The answer is that "The Place Beyond The Pines" is an ambitious epic that is cut from some of the same thematic tissue as Cianfrance's previous film, but expands the scope into a wondrously widescreen tale of fathers, sons and the legacy of sins that are passed down through the generations.
Cianfrance opens the film with a bravura tracking shot, following Ryan Gosling's Luke from behind, Dardennes Brothers style, as he walks through a carnival in upstate in New York, eventually arriving at the main event. He leads a group of stunt drivers that motorcycle daredevil style in an enclosed circular metal cage at top speed, as they defy death by narrowly keeping from crashing into each other. His plethora of tattoos on nearly every part of body indicate a past of pain and trouble, and his job is one that means he's always on the move. But things change when he learns his fling with waitress Romina (Eva Mendes) the previous year when he was last through town, has resulted in a son.
While his life up until this point may be dishonorable, lonely and unsteady, Luke is determined to do the reputable thing and contribute to the support of his child, despite the obstacles in his way. Romina is living with another man, and a stunt driver has little employment options outside of minimum wage gigs. Luke makes friends with the similarly shady Robin (Ben Mendelsohn from "Animal Kingdom" and "The Dark Knight Rises") who runs an auto body shop…and also happens to be a former bank robber. It isn't long before the pair decide to team on this illegal, but very well paying job, but Luke's path puts him right on a collision course with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a local cop.
And that's all we can tell you about the plot because a major narrative twist at the end first act is best left unspoiled, but this shift raises the stakes and reorients the story so dramatically that 'Pines' begins to take on a scale few films attempt, let alone achieve. In some ways, one could look at 'Pines' as a spiritual sequel to "Blue Valentine." If the latter film chronicled in raw, intimate detail the fracture of a relationship, it's in 'Pines' that Cianfrance follows what the fallout would be. This is a film that is very much about how the actions of the father, directly and indirectly pass on to the son. Or how the fissures and mistakes of the previous generation, have ramifications both practical and emotional months, years and decades later.
There will be some who will tilt the film and viewing it from another angle, it could be regarded as an allegory for the moral turpitude that has shaken the American dream. At one point, Avery reflects that when he was in law school, justice was viewed as a concept that was discussed, not as a tangible right. And only by becoming a cop, could he actually ensure justice was carried out, although it was by force. But as we learn, Avery and Luke are both morally compromised, even as they try to do with the right thing in both their lives. But what is undeniable is that while Luke is clearly breaking the law, the fallout from Avery's ethically dubious actions hits those hard on the social and financial rung below him. And that unfairness is not only unforgotten, but festers and boils beneath the surface.
All of these elements — working class struggle, familial and generational discord, the relationship (or lack thereof) between fathers and sons — builds tremendously into a film that feels like it has shades of classic Italian melodramas put through the lens of a distinctly American film. No surprise then that the score and soundtrack veers from Arvo Part to new music from Mike Patton to the electronic crunch of Amon Tobin and still feels of a whole. It's part of a grand production tapestry that elevates this picture to another dimension.
And then there's the cinematography by Steve McQueen's frequent collaborator Sean Bobbitt who has worked on all his films. Capturing the feel of small town Schenectady, while also opening up and providing breathtaking, beautiful vistas of New York state countryside, it visually helps 'Pines' establish itself as a film of big ideas and vision. That the film is strongly acted across the board, the final pieces in helping Cianfrance deliver his first grand opus, is almost an afterthought. Gosling, Cooper, Mendes and Mendelsohn all do terrific work (the latter continuing to astonish at how easily he can shapeshift into roles). But we'd be remiss in not giving kudos to both Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen who arrive at a key juncture and deliver with some astonishing work. The latter in particular a true revelation.
With "The Place Beyond The Pines" Derek Cianfrance has now placed himself in the canon of great, contemporary American filmmakers like James Gray, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. This is a film that desires to say something about how we relate to each other, and how the often overlooked consequences of our actions can refract down avenues we could never expect. A brilliant, towering picture, "The Place Beyond The Pines" is a cinematic accomplishment of extraordinary grace and insight. [A]