Two of Hollywood’s hottest properties go out on a limb with indie crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines. Recent Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (for Silver Linings Playbook) and Drive star Ryan Gosling are brought together by writer/director Derek Cianfrance who tells a somewhat familiar story of guilt and redemption but without adhering to a standard formula, or being needlessly flashy about it. What results is a truly arresting, deeply haunting film that sets itself apart.
Gosling mightn’t feel it was a punt having starred in Cianfrance’s acclaimed 2010 film Blue Valentine, (conveniently labelled a romance though it actually aims to dispel romantic notions). Here, he plays motorcycle stunt rider Luke who scrapes a living with a travelling funfair and Cianfrance matches him for swagger behind the camera using an opening tracking shot that follows him across town, then mounting his bike and doing a few rounds in the ‘Globe of Death’. It’s the sort of camera move that begs to be noticed – like Ray Liotta weaving through a nightclub in Goodfellas – but after making you sit up, Cianfrance pulls back and lets his actors do the heavy lifting.
Luke has returned to the small town of Schenectady where he’s approached by a woman who dares him to remember her name (Eva Mendes). He doesn’t hesitate, uttering “Romina” in a way that suggests it’s indelibly marked on his consciousness. Still, Luke aims to be out of town the next day and is only stopped in his tracks when he discovers that she is raising their son. From that moment he resolves to provide for them and gets desperate enough that he takes to robbing banks. But after pushing his luck too far, Cooper finally enters the picture – crashing into it really – as pursuing officer Avery. At around an hour into the film, you may have forgotten that he was in it at all.
Another winding point-of-view shot sees Avery chase Luke on his motorcycle; bumping up and down through alleyways, then doing a slalom through a cemetery. But these wild bursts of adrenaline are punctuation marks between quieter scenes that are more telling by forcing both characters to question what being a man really means. After Luke gets nabbed, he fades into the background and Cianfrance turns the spotlight on Avery. He is also a dad to a one-year-old boy and struggles to reconcile doing his job (and being hailed a hero) with knowledge that he’s depriving another boy of his father. There are lingering shots on Cooper’s face as he struggles just to look his child in the eye, and earlier, on Gosling cradling his baby to relish that warmth before the cops come for him.
Later, there’s a more abrupt left-turn into James Ellroy territory where Ray Liotta pops up (sans tracking shot) as a dirty cop who pressures Avery to swipe drugs and cash from the evidence room. Avery’s moral fibre is tested again, but in a way that feels too obvious and distracts from the more immediate matter of his shame for tearing a family apart. In fact, as time goes on, Avery finds a way to turn the situation to his advantage and papers over the emotional cracks. Then, Cianfrance shifts gears once more. He cuts to fifteen years later when Luke’s son (Dane DeHaan) and Avery’s boy (Emory Cohen) form a bond at school, unaware of how their fates are entwined. The sins of the fathers weigh heavily on their shoulders and threaten to be repeated.
Essentially, Cianfrance has sewn three films together in sequential order: a heist thriller, a cop drama and a coming-of-age story. It isn’t seamless and it sags through the midsection, but Cianfrance is an actor’s director and gifts his cast with preciously detailed roles. It’s no wonder he attracts A-Listers like Gosling and Cooper who, for their part, draw the juice out of every scene, when another director might have called ‘cut’ already. This one has a keen eye for new talent as well, because the youngsters each have a tough act to follow and step up with aplomb – DeHaan, in particular, manages to filter an essence of Gosling through languid gestures and a blistering gaze. Ultimately, he turns out to be the genuine hero of the piece in a stirring climax where the end meets the beginning. There’s a residual feeling that if patterns are destined to repeat they will eventually lead to a better outcome and that’s certainly true for this film, which demands a second viewing.
The Place Beyond the Pines is in UK cinemas on 12 April.