In Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is given the title of “ambitious” because it juggles more than a single mains character, and moreso because it shifts our attention from one to the next. It gives us a chain reaction in relation to 3 separate characters. Ryan Gosling’s character Luke is a motorcycle stuntman who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend after he finds out she has a baby. Luke’s frequent run-ins with the law (he robs banks) due to his attempts to make money for himself and his “family” get him confronted by a police officer named Avery (Bradley Cooper). The interaction is at first thought of as an instance of two characters meeting and becoming entangled in the same storyline, but it is soon revealed, as Avery and Luke fire off their guns and Luke falls from the second story window, that Cianfrance’s narrative leaves Luke and focuses on the after-effects of the confrontation wholly on Avery. In making this decision, Cianfrance’s intention is clear. His story is one of cause and effect. How the life of one person can so powerfully affect another. Moreso, how the life of a criminal can leave an impression on the cop. The story further accelerates into a game of corrupt politics with Avery coming out on top and the thread (with a title card of “15 Years Later”) passing over to the sons of Luke and Avery, who themselves experience the dark effects of their father’s tumultuous one time fatal encounter. All of this contributes to a movie which can acceptably described as “ambitious” because it is, as Cianfrance himself showed at some points, difficult to juggle properly or effectively.
In this sophomore feature, Cianfrance is still flexing his skills as mood setter, but his skills as a storyteller have noticeably gone “Hollywood”. No longer do we have a muddle of emotions and complex situations where characters can do right and wrong, act good and bad. Everyone in The Place Beyond the Pines is too fleshed out and easy to decipher, they all have a trajectory which is too conventional and ends in cathartic resolution rather than bittersweet compromise. Avery especially is a total righteous cop, ready at the drop of a hat to turn his corrupt cop buddies in, and finds himself in and out of trouble through very simple means (simply blackmailing a lawyer for judicial assistance and of all things, a major promotion that he really isn’t even qualified for). Unlike in Blue Valentine, where emotions were palpable and almost tangible, and the relationship struggles were a helplessly real and raw battle, in this film Cianfrance’s characters don’t relate to each other at all and his play between husbands, wives and children suddenly falls out of the frame when he’s preoccupied with such a riveting story to tell.
Still, The Place Beyond the Pines features some great moments, one of the most intense being when Avery is asked by his superior officer Deluca (Ray Liotta) to follow him, and the sequence takes us through a rugged road surrounded by thick pines and as the scenery gets darker and the road winds and twists, the lights on Avery’s car start to point to an endless abyss, like a timid flashlight in a cave of horrors. The sequence is played with such mastery of suspense, it was more terrifying than the hundred “pop-out” scares in all the horror movies that have come out recently. It is the type of directing talent one should expect from Cianfrance, and his film, be it of lighter weight and of shallower depth than his debut, is still “entertaining” for what it’s worth, and marks a consecutive success with the camera that makes him a director to look out for.