Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance likes to paint on a big canvas.
His last film, Blue Valentine,
chronicled the two extremes of a relationship, from its first spark to its
bitter demise. In The Place Beyond the
Pines he charts the destinies of fathers and sons, and the people closest
to them. It’s ambitious and unusual, to say the least, but I think it works
because it’s honest. What some people might write off as a series of coincidences
he embraces fully, giving each plot turn credence as well as resonance.
Describing the film without giving too much away is tricky.
Ryan Gosling (who also starred in Blue
Valentine) plays a daredevil motorcycle rider who works for a traveling
carnival. While stopping in Schenectady, New York, he looks up a woman he
dallied with his last time through town (Eva Mendes) and discovers that the
baby she’s raising is his. Without hesitation he quits the carnival and determines
to take responsibility for the child, despite Mendes’ protests. A mercurial
man, he goes to extremes to find a meaningful way to support his
family-once-removed. At some point he crosses paths with Schenectady cop
Bradley Cooper, who has a wife and an infant son of his own; their fateful
encounter alters the course of their lives and their families’ future.
Cianfrance, who collaborated on the screenplay with Ben Coccio
and Darius Marder, allows his saga to unfold as a linear narrative: there’s no
hopping back and forth in time. That’s deliberate and meaningful, as each
decision his characters make has consequences that play out in scenes to
The film poses the question: are we prisoners of our destiny
or can we break patterns and make our own way in the world? The answer isn’t
clear-cut, and that’s what makes The
Place Beyond the Pines so consistently compelling. Its side stories may not
seem directly connected to the through-line, but they are, in ways we can’t
always recognize immediately. Cianfrance has cast his film extremely well,
offering good parts not only to his talented (and deeply committed) stars but
to veterans Ray Liotta and Harris Yulin, solid supporting actors like Ben
Mendelsohn and Bruce Greenwood, and newcomers Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan. He
also makes exceptional use of his distinctive upstate New York location,
weaving it into the fabric of his film. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is
striking at every turn, spontaneous and hand-held in some scenes, more formal
as the occasion demands. What’s more, the film amply justifies its
two-hour-plus running time; you wouldn’t want to see Cianfrance’s ideas
The Place Beyond the
Pines is the kind of original, provocative film that gives one hope. It
tells us that some movie stars still respond to strong material; by lending
their marquee clout to a smaller production, they help subsidize this kind of
independent filmmaking. Thank goodness for that.
By the way, the film’s title derives from the Mohawk Indian
name for Schenectady!