I hope you are able to see The Place Beyond The Pines without finding out too much in advance about how the story plays out. I innocently read the review by the seasoned and should-know-better David Denby in the New Yorker and found out exactly what happens in it. (I’ve read long-form reviews in UK publications, such as Philip French’s in the Observer, where the writer has expertly skirted around one key issue, so it can be done with discretion.) To be honest, it’s still a fine film, in my opinion. But the less you know the better.
It’s a melodrama, and that’s not anything like a criticism. I would argue that the definitive films noirs are melodramas, and this third feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (I never saw his first, but my review of Blue Valentine is here) certainly fits into that approximate genre. It’s also a grand family saga. It has the feel of an old-fashioned American miniseries, something like Rich Man, Poor Man, which older readers may remember fondly.
Because it’s showing at the Curzon, which is a small arthouse chain of which I am an enthusiastic member, I have to put up with the same fairly narrow range of trailers on a loop each time I visit. The Place Beyond The Pines has a striking trailer, in which Ryan Gosling is revealed as a stunt motorcycle rider (as opposed to the stunt car driver in Drive) and the father of Eve Mendes’ baby son, which he wishes to support. The trailer also reveals that robbing a bank is what he does to raise some funds, and that Bradley Cooper’s cop in some way confounds this plan. I commented to my friend Lucy that it gives too much away, but, having seen it, she assured me that it doesn’t.
So … the bare bones of the film – sexy images, by and large, of the main protagonists – are all that we who have seen the trailer actually know about The Place Beyond The Pines. Unless we have read David Denby. I tell you this so that, if you intend to see it, you avoid reading any more reviews (although you’re safe to read on here). The trailer gives away only half the picture. It’s a very clever trailer.
And it’s a very ambitious film. Indie by nature, it ticks the credibility boxes by casting Gosling in the lead, but casting him opposite Bradley Cooper, who is a much more mainstream star, with cred of his own after Silver Linings Playbook. (Gosling started out as a cool actor in challenging stuff like The Believer and Half Nelson, but his commercial appeal grew, whereas Cooper hit big with broad-appeal movies like The A-Team and The Hangover and has been working hard to improve his licks, which is bearing fruit.) It’s a film about men, and these two are the men it’s mainly about, but not exclusively.
With its diners, carnivals, trailers, auto shops, car lots and 1st National banks, it’s almost a caricature of smalltown America as seen in the movies – as such it takes on mythic properties, and is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose beautiful work you’ve already seen in Hunger and Shame. Set and shot in and around the former Mohawk settlement Schenectady, it has a realism of place that’s hard to replicate, and despite the melodrama unfolding within it, it lends authenticity to the performances, which might otherwise tip into camp. (Many have likened Gosling’s brooding brute in a white t-shirt to Marlon Brando in his ape-like prime, and you can see where they’re heading.)
I think I bought into the film more than other critics, who’ve variously questioned the length (it’s two hours and 20 minutes, which is long for an indie), the third act (of which too much must not be spoken for fear of neutering its revelations), the paucity of anything much to do for the decent female actors (Rose Byrne is underused, too) and Cianfrance’s lack of control with the material as it expands outwards. I forgive it these sins. It’s bold, high-minded American cinema that isn’t afraid of having a character stop at a crossroads on his motorbike and fail to respond to a green light at the point when he is at a crossroads in his life. Neither is it afraid of visual rhymes – again, which should be savoured without me listing them here – or big themes like fatherhood and honour and, just maybe, the poisoning of the American dream.
Oh, and the music is superb. The score is by Mike Patton, formerly of Faith No More, and its haunting theme, The Snow Angel, pressed into effective service for the trailer, is a pre-existing tune written for a previous film, but no less fitting for it. There are also numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Suicide and Hall & Oates, and some passages by Arvo Part. It’s all put together with maximum care and attention. (And Hall & Oates’ Maneater has a hook in an earlier line of dialogue, it’s not just a hit song for its own sake.)
This and Compliance are my favourite American films of the post-Oscars year so far.