The Place Beyond The Pines marks up-and-coming indie director Derek Cianfrance's first attempt at making the Great American Movie. It has all the hallmarks of that illustrious canon: the sociological inflections, the operatic tenor, and the application of near-biblical themes to the modern United States landscape in its story of father-son relationships and burdens of guilt echoing across economic divides and down the generations.
The crime drama is split quite clearly into three separate sections set in and around the city of Schenectady in the state of New York. In the first, Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stunt driver working for a travelling fair, and another one of the rising star's accomplished portrayals of a damaged loner. Upon discovering that one of his brief flings, played by Eva Mendes, has borne his child, he decides to force himself into his newborn son's life by giving the mother money gleaned from a series of bank heists he carries out with the aid of a local mechanic (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn in another memorable supporting role).
Needless to say, things end badly, and the focus shifts to police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), as he deals with the aftermath of Glanton's crime spree and sets about unearthing deep-seated corruption within his own department of law and order. Rather than see this subject matter through to its explosive, courtroom set conclusion, as one would expect to see in a more conventional movie, Cianfrance unexpectedly drops us fifteen years into the future, for a sombre coda showing the sons of Glanton and Cross crossing paths and reopening some old family scars.
It might be less accurate to describe these sections as acts, than to define them as movements, as any linear narrative thrust is sublimated in favour of the recurring thematic preoccupations, until the movie comes to resemble a piece of music in its emphasis upon mood and emotional resonance over action or event.
Like those great 70s American movies of Scorsese, Coppola and Polanski to which Pines is so obviously indebted, where generic crime material was expanded to introduce a more sophisticated interrogation of male psychology, Cianfrance's modern saga is overwhelmingly male and about men. Its depiction of the role of inescapable fate, economic circumstance, and pigheaded selfishness in shaping the motivations and failings of American masculinity paints a very bleak, albeit completely engrossing, picture indeed. Ultimately, the film is about masculine paralysis: the male inability to move forward, to forgive, forget, or show compassion and love, until at the movie's end maleness itself seems to lie prostrate across the film's shadowy woodland locale like some monolithic and rotting corpse.
From a technical point of view, the film is a similarly encouraging testament to Cianfrance's growing mastery of the medium. It opens with a bravura dolly shot following Gosling's character as he leaves his trailer and swaggers purposefully through a glowing, bustling carnival to the tent where he will perform his motorcycling stunts, cheered on by a large crowd of onlookers. The way it shows Gosling cutting through stationary bystanders instantly highlights his loneliness, and the camera's relentless forward momentum draws the viewer seductively into the picture's melancholy yet beautiful universe. But Cianfrance refrains from such showiness elsewhere, his largely hand-held camera instead hovering in close proximity to its cast, capturing the flickers of anguish, pain, and moral conflict that pass across their boyish yet broken faces.
In the leads, Gosling and Cooper once again affirm their positions as two of their generation's most compelling screen actors, and the two unknowns chosen to play their grown-up children are remarkably naturalistic and convincing as inarticulate teenage boys. You can almost smell the BO off of them, and I can only assume that they were instructed not to shower for a month in order to essay more authentically the griminess of young men. Although Gosling isn't given the time to improve upon his layered, wounded performance in his previous collaboration with Cianfrance, Blue Valentine, this in itself is noteworthy in that it shows this serious-minded young actor's dedication to his craft and that picking interesting characters in adventurous movies is more important to him than the ego-serving privileges of making star vehicles - which must surely have been offered to him.
Tellingly, Cianfrance includes Arvo Part's 'Fratres (for cello and piano)' alongside the efficiently atmospheric if uninspired original score by long-time experimental rocker Mike Patton. This piece was recently used to great effect by PT Anderson in There Will Be Blood, and by reusing it here Cianfrance is surely intentionally trying to align his artistic ambitions with those of his acclaimed peer, and to show that he is similarly determined to make thoughtful and deeply felt works about the state of America as refracted through its social history.