*** (3 stars)
d - Derek Cianfrance
w - Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
ph - Sean Bobbitt
pd - Inbal Weinberg
m - Mike Patton
ed - Jim Helton, Ron Patane
cos - Erin Benach
p - Lynette Howell, Sidney Kimmel, Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Robert Clohessy, Olga Merediz
It is widely known that everyone concerned who made Casablanca would never have guessed that they were making a classic. Yet it became one almost instantly. No piece of art, most of all movies, will become great if the filmmakers sole endeavour is to be the great. This is because everyone in the world has a different idea of what “great” means. Therefore, greatness is applied when a picture succeeds as the piece of art it is. The piece in question must be about something because being “great” is not anything and the audience will reject it almost immediately. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is probably the most famous example of this but I could also point you to last year’s Les Miserables.
The Place Beyond the Pines is the sophomore film by director Derek Cianfrance who, after much struggle, released his first film in 2010, the heartbreaking Blue Valentine. His latest is even sadder. It is a grand novel about the father-son relationship crammed into 140 minutes that is, funnily enough, not based on previous material at all. It premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and is, like his previous film, another collaboration with actor Ryan Gosling.
The film is set in Schenectady, New York (whose name derives from a Mohawk word that translates to the movie’s title), sometime in the 1990s. It opens with a tracking shot (by the very intelligent Sean Bobbitt) of Mr Gosling, playing a motorcycle stunt rider named Luke, strutting out of his trailer and across a crowded fairground. A terse piece of muscle with tattoos and blonde hair, Luke is clearly desirable. Yet thanks to Mr Cianfrance’s uncanny iris for behaviour – and Mr Gosling’s formidable ability – without having Luke say much of anything, it is conveyed that he wants something more.
Luke ascertains that Romina, played by Eva Mendes, whom he met the last time he was in Schenectady, has had a baby. He then valiantly, though foolishly, decides to devote himself to the imaginary ideal of ethical father-hood and quits stunt-riding. This makes him easy prey for the salty mechanic named Robin, played by the consistently dependable Ben Mendelsohn, who’s been looking for a young co-conspirator to get back in the bank-robbery profession.
Romina, despite being in a stable relationship with a very sensible and caring man, finds herself unable to resist Luke (as do we). Both actors are incredible here, delivering emotionally fearless turns. Ms Mendes, whose character is the aching nucleus of this paternal novel, has never been better. Luke, like all movie criminals, gets too confident and one of his reckless bank-heist getaways puts him in the path of Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper, a determined novice cop who dreams of a political future.
It would be wrong of me to reveal too much about how the narrative zigzags in the picture, so I shan’t. Suffice it to say that the second section of the movie is predominantly about Avery and his escalation to control, while the third section isn’t about Avery or Luke, but surveys their children into the present through the long repercussion of their first, auspicious meeting. Avery is an unpolluted cop with a hero’s repute who progressively turns his department’s widespread corruption, demonstrated in an obsequious senior detective character played by Ray Liotta, who is as terrifying as ever, to his advantage.
The sudden shift in narrative is copacetic and the narrative itself, interesting. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the cogency of the picture begins to feel unfocused here, with the contrast of the two male leading characters furnished on pretty thick. This becomes even more evident in the third act of the film, which is set in the present. Luke’s and Avery’s sons, played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, are teenagers and high-school classmates who meet by accident, not knowing their dads’ past history.
Although I consider Blue Valentine to be a scorching, candid piece of contemporary cinema, the major ratchet that irked me about that picture was its seeping trickle of self-seriousness (I can recall the titular two words in humungous letters across the screen). That picture did take Mr Cianfrance over ten years to make so I can understand those dips of thematic impulsion. This picture took him six years and it certainly has a similar problem. But the film’s reach is so large, so motivated, so ruthless that one bows to its cancer.
Now that, of course, would mean nothing if none of the filmmakers knew what their movie was about and fortunately that is not the case here. Mr Cianfrance seems to be fulfilled with just some film, a camera and his actors to create a captivating realization. And the entire ensemble here is fearless to say the least and astounding to say the most. Again, the film thinks it is a classic and it isn’t, but Mr Cianfrance is one of the most talented filmmakers working today and I feel the movie might become one. At this point, it will probably be undervalued.