Derek Cianfrance may not be a well-known filmmaker, but with his third feature film as a writer/director, The Place Beyond the Pines, he is quickly gaining some serious attention as a gifted auteur with a keen eye examining the intricate dynamics of relationships.
In his second collaboration with Ryan Gosling, after the cult hit relationship drama Blue Valentine, Cianfrance and his writing team throw the rulebook out the window, opting to tell an ambitious multi-generational story of fathers and sons. Set in and around Schenectady, NY (the film’s title is a loose translation from a Mohawk word based on the city’s name), the film is split into three distinct acts and stories. The film first follows Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a cash-strapped motorcycle stuntman who finds out that his one night stand with Romina (Eva Mendes) has produced a son. But she has moved on with her life with a new man. But Luke decides to stick around town, and starts robbing banks to support his child in a desperate attempt to win back Romina away from her new lover.
In a wildly ambitious chase scene, when Luke has crossed paths with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) after a bank robbery where he made one too many mistakes, Cianfrance shoots the scene from within Cross’s car and we witness Luke speeding through a cemetery in the background. A well crafted scene which makes one wonder how fast Gosling was going on that motorcycle and the amount of training it must have taken to get Gosling to a semi-professional level as a speeding motorcyclist.
The movie then shifts gears and it becomes Avery Cross’s story, an honest cop working for a corrupt police force while dealing with the guilt that he killed Luke and that his infant son will never get to know his father. This gives Cross much psychological turmoil, so much so, that he cannot even look at his own infant son. Cross looks to his own father for moral advice and struggles with conflicted feelings about turning on his fellow police officers.
In its third and final act, the film moves forward fifteen years, where Cross is now a workaholic, aspiring politician, with an estranged relationship with his teenage son. The main focus is now on the teenage sons of Cross and Glanton, and the ultimate climax when Glanton’s son discovers that his best friend’s father was responsible for the death of the father he never got to know.
Cianfrance’s film builds on wonderfully acted performances and is a compelling drama, but it does falter under the weight of its own ambition. The three stories are multi-layered enough that the 2-hour plus running time does not do it enough justice to explore all the characters arcs. This film could have been a three-part mini-series or a novel. Regardless, it is a powerful piece of cinema and one of the best films of the year. Hopefully, this film will be remembered around Oscar time. It deserves acting nominations for Gosling and Mendes and Cianfrance for his writing/directing.