Derek Cianfrance’s second film, the anticipated The Place Beyond the Pines, was released last week as his follow-up to critically-acclaimed debut Blue Valentine. The director’s re-uniting with heartthrob and man-crush material Ryan Gosling also sees Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan – each fresh from respective breakthroughs (Cooper in his first big ‘serious’ role in Silver Linings Playbook and DeHaan with his first real big-screen opportunity in last year’s little superhero gem Chronicle) – as part of the cast.
It’s these three actors who each dominate a section of the film. The first 40 minutes, roughly, focus on Ryan Gosling… just as every film should do (even those without him in it, ideally). Remembering his various turns in Drive, Blue Valentine, The Ides of March and more in the last couple of years alone helps bring to mind what an extraordinary and captivating talent he can be, with performances improving year-on-year.
These days his characters are typically striking and unforgettable, and his physical features here capture that essence from the get-go. With his blonde hair and tattoos that appear on his face, the opening shots of the film are a close-up of his rather flawless midriff to kick things off. From here we diverge from appearance to another kind of physicality, as he soon displays talent beyond meagre capability as he excels and revels in his motorbike skills. This nod to Drive doesn’t go unnoticed, and the precision and close-control that enable such fluid action scenes – including a rather wonderfully-filmed chase – allow the director-and-actor-combo to exhibit magnificent spectacles of precise talent and terrifying danger.
But these bike scenes go beyond existing merely as exciting side-shows. Not only are they essential to the plot and to exhibiting (and mirroring) the ferocity of Gosling’s character, but they also provide some of the calmer moments in the film. The winding roads that Gosling races along are accompanied by the centrepiece of the lingering score which serves not only as a motif throughout our journey – and that of the characters throughout their lives – but also beautifully sums up the fragmented, persistent and repetitive nature of existence which the film portrays.
Blue Valentine was the exhausting story of a troubled husband and wife; a depiction of what marriage is and the desperate attempts of Gosling and Williams to make it work. It supposed about the actualities of marriage for the duo. For every dream of a star-crossed lover there’s a double-suicide – or the metaphorical marriage equivalent – waiting to happen in those situations where it’s not quite right, where things begin to fall apart, and is an unsettling story about how it turns out for so many people.
If that rather bleak description of Blue Valentine is accurate then The Place Beyond the Pines is far more concerned with father-son relationships (or parent-child connections, at least) which has already been widely discussed in various reviews. However it’s more than that. Though all three of the main characters are heavily involved and influenced through these familial and familiar ways, some of which is really quite distressing, the relationships are more than sheer circularity.
Whilst much has been noted about the archetypal and fabled nature of Beyond the Pines in the delivery of its ambition and epic-scale, the first section – which might have slipped your mind by the end of the journey – is notably realistic. This transition into the more metaphorical occurs via the middle section, focusing on Cooper, which glues everything together. Despite the difficulties involved, Cianfrance successfully manages to reconcile the differences between the clashes of styles with the use of the remarkable middle section which helps to drift it from one thing into something else entirely.
Though potentially jarring at first, this negotiation pays off. It follows Blue Valentine which balanced acts of happiness, generosity and optimism with desperation, anxiety and hopelessness with accomplished deftness. Films like Argo also combined genres that clash with its mix of Hollywood parody and genuine edge-of-the-seat thrills. Beyond the Pines picked up where these films left off and managed to balance the tone and mood brilliantly, not between genres, but between the styles of realism moving through to the artificiality that the film closes with.
If Martin McDonagh went from the brilliantly simple and straightforward In Bruges to the more complicated and ambitious Seven Psychopaths for his follow-up, then Cianfrance is doing for family dramas what McDoangh did for black comedies. He moves from an intimate and unsettling piece about love and marriage to bigger dimensions and a grander scale in the life-spanning Beyond the Pines, and his transition is marginally more successful than McDonagh’s. Beyond The Pines manages to achieve something which the character of Ben Mendelsohn – the Animal Kingdom sensation who has since gone on to feature in The Dark Knight Rises and Killing them Softly – doesn’t believe in, and somehow rides like lightening without crashing like thunder.