Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 breakthrough feature Blue Valentine gave him instant recognition as a mercilessly honest student of human failings, tracing the blossoming of love between a young couple intercut with the furious demise of their relationship some years later.
Reuniting with Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling, Cianfrance’s follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines similarly juxtaposes two contrasting stories, although this time they are loosely connected tales about two men, fathers, under pressure to do the right thing. In the style of La double vie de Véronique or Chungking Express, the two tales play out sequentially, and the ties that bind them are not entirely clear from the get-go.
Set in the small city of Schenectady, New York (Schenectady translates loosely as “beyond the pines” from the native Mohawk), we are first introduced to daredevil fairground stuntman Luke Glanton (Gosling), mechanically twitching a flickknife in his campervan before going on stage. In a superbly choreographed single take, Hunger and Shame D.P. Sean Bobbitt’s camera follows Glanton across the fairground, to his motorbike and, with a clever off-camera actor switcheroo, into a steel cage where he performs his gravity-defying entertainment.
Learning he has an infant son in the city from a previous passing-through, Glanton opts to abandon his travelling act and stay in town, mindful of the effect not having a father had on him. His baby-mama Romina (Eva Mendes) is not entirely happy with the arrangement – her live-in boyfriend is furious with it – but a serious attraction between the pair lingers. Encouraged by his mechanic friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to “use his skillset”, Glanton turns to bank robbery, escaping through winding streets on his motorbike. With money comes increased danger of being caught and a desire to play a greater role in his son’s life, but Glanton is not one to give up easily when he’s on to a good thing.
Equally stuck to his own guns is honest cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), whose story becomes the sole focus of the film in the second act. Also a father to a young son, Avery is the natural foil to Glanton – his father (Harris Yulin), a district attorney, supports him; his wife (Rose Byrne), shows her love and concern. Yet, by pursuing corrupt colleagues within his own department, Avery shows the same determination to make the world a better place for his son as Glanton did.
These two stories are meticulously filmed and paced by Cianfrance, who co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. Like the best dual-story films the echoes of the first story in the second make both stories all the stronger. Glanton’s tale allows Bobbitt’s camerawork to ignite the screen. Avery’s story provides some superb character development and bubbling tension.
Casting two of the most desirable male movie stars in the business right now is a stroke of genius that pays off superbly. Gosling channels the pain of his Blue Valentine character and pours it into the empty vessel of his Drive persona, creating an aching but deep-down kindly criminal, whose face constantly fights back the emotions it wants to betray. Cooper expresses more of the frustration and isolation he performed so strongly in Silver Linings Playbook, playing a character who is willing to sacrifice his own happiness for what he believes is right. The two handsome stars reflect one another like Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona, almost merging in the audience’s mind, as Gosling’s central role transfers to Cooper.
It is as the second story comes to a close that everything goes terribly wrong. Not content with a superb compare-and-contrast, Cianfrance’s film begins an epilogue, set 15 years after the earlier sequences, to tie up the loose ends that were better left undone. What might have been covered in five minutes is dragged out to a mind-numbing 45, as the epilogue mutates into a yawn-inducing third act.
We follow the teenage sons of Glanton and Avery (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen respectively) as they interact and suffer for the sins of their fathers. Story, acting and style go out the window in favour of this hackneyed, utterly predictable conclusion that simply has no need to exist, except to hammer home a metaphor already beautifully and understatedly handled in the first two acts. It is a painful experience to endure; not only is it mind-numbingly boring, but watching a modern masterpiece of cinema dissolve into a mediocre work before your very eyes is like seeing an art gallery on fire and knowing there is nothing you can do. Like Avery seeing his son grow up and becoming a drug-abusing disappointment, Cianfrance seems to sit back and let this bastardisation of his own work continue, and continue, and continue.
Still, even the disastrous conclusion is not enough to completely derail this stunningly made film, even if it does leave a bitter aftertaste. Eva Mendes gives a superb supporting performance as a woman bitterly torn between what she wants and what she needs, and traumatised when that decision is made for her. Ben Mendelsohn, now typecast as the shifty working class goon, plays strong support, as does his Killing Them Softly co-star Ray Liotta as a vengeful crooked cop. Dane DeHaan is passable as the younger Glanton, but Emery Cohen is a mumbling drain of energy in every scene he appears.
One thing the final act cannot sully is the sublime score by Michael Patton, with its echoing keyboard effects conjuring a romantic melancholy that electrifies many of the film’s key scenes. It is further evidence of Cianfrance being able to surround himself with talented artists at the top of their game, and points towards even better things ahead for the director.
But there’s no denying here that Cianfrance has scuttled his own ship, and a film that might have been one of the year’s finest is now one that will likely be forgotten by many. It’s a lesson in self-indulgent storytelling, and a tragedy for great drama and filmmaking. Enjoy what you can in it; for all its shooting itself in the foot, there is much beauty here.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)