**This review may contain minor spoilers**
“Not since Hall and Oates has there been such a team.” – Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling)
Near the end of 2010, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine was released to theaters. I drove up to Boston to catch a screening as I had not only fallen in love with the trailer for the film, but my interest had shot through the roof at the inclusion of the one the only, Ryan Gosling. This was a time period when Gosling was recognizable from his roles in The Notebook and Lars and the Real Girl, but also from his Oscar nomination for his role as a drugged-up high school teacher in Half Nelson. Upon Blue’s release however, Gosling hadn’t been in a film for three years. Well, the wait was worth it. Not only did Gosling deliver what was for me the best male performance of the year, but Blue Valentine also landed atop my year-end list as my favorite film of that year.
Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up, The Place Beyond The Pines, is a film of immense ambition. It’s a story told not strictly through the lens of one protagonist, but several, and could easily be chopped up into three different chapters. The first revolves around Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed enigma who rides a motorcycle for the circus. He doesn’t stay in one town for long, but always seems to travel through Schenectady, New York on a yearly basis. In this town lives Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman who birthed Luke’s child unbeknownst to him, until now. Thus, events are set in motion, as Luke teams up with a local car mechanic to provide for his child through a life of crime and try to prove to Romina that he is the man for her.
This first chapter is perfection. Gosling delivers an extremely powerful and layered performance, giving Luke a regretful angst that he seems to transfer to everyone with whom he interacts. Everyone includes Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a cop with ambitions far beyond his pay grade. It is he who the second chapter of this story revolves around, and although it may dive into a quasi-police procedural at times, it is nonetheless an artfully told story with Cooper anchoring it with another captivating turn.
The third chapter is an evolution of these first two chapters, jumping in time to a Schenectady fifteen years down the line. It is here where the sons of Luke and Avery cross paths as two misbegotten souls trying to escape, or perhaps in Jason’s case embrace, the shadows of their fathers. It is Dane DeHaan as Jason, the offspring of Luke, who radiates from the screen in this one. His performance can even be viewed as a continuation of Gosling’s, with DeHaan keeping a certain intense emotional core just below the surface until he is ready to explode. It is no wonder that DeHaan seems to be landing roles left and right nowadays, even landing the key role of Harry Osborn in next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
To discuss this film without mentioning Cianfrance’s strong grasp of the material would be a mistake. Whereas in Blue Valentine he chose to explore the faults of humanity through the rise and fall of a romantic relationship, with Pines he chose to explore those faults through generational angst. In simpler terms the theme could be described as “like father, like son” but that would be selling the film short. Things are never simple for these characters.
Cianfrance has created a world much like our own: where you not only have to deal with the consequences of the actions of those who came before you, but where you also must deal with your own actions. Your DNA should not excuse your life choices. Somewhere along the way, we must make a choice as to whether we will embrace our past or move against. This very concept is what connects me to the film. Is there anyone who doesn’t wonder what their life would be like had they come from a different set of circumstances? The question of “What if?” is something that is universally relatable, but not necessarily universally understood. Just because we wonder about these things however, does not mean we have no control over them.
While the first chapter of Pines is the one garnering the most acclaim, and rightfully so, at no point in the film does it lose its relevance. Some have had issue with the detours the story takes, most notably in the last chapter, but the power of the story and these characters was never too far off in my mind. I would argue that it is these detours that increase the power of the themes in the film, by contrasting what could have been to what actually is.
From the stunning cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, to the incredible score and soundtrack, your journey into The Place Beyond the Pines is not likely to be easily forgot. Although in this review I’ve talked a lot about the ideas and themes that resonated with me personally, I honestly believe there’s a little something for everyone to latch on to. It is not an action film however, which certainly isn’t the first time mainstream audiences have expected such from a Gosling vehicle (I’m looking at you Drive haters).
While it is not a perfect film, the term “ambitious to a fault” is not apt in my mind. Although many critics would seem to argue with that, I think faulting this film for it’s ambition is on par with faulting Gosling for that bloody dagger face tattoo his character sports in the film. Since when is ambition and trying to tell a story differently something to look down upon? That is not to say every ambitious film works, but in this case I feel safe to say, it very much does.