Breakout indie directors don’t all choose to make the some kind of follow-up film. Some sign on for a big studio movie, others make something similar but safe, and the rest take the larger funding they can now attract to produce something more ambitious. Derek Cianfrance has taken the third path, using the success of his second film, Blue Valentine, to bankroll a small-town crime epic about the impact of one person’s mistakes on those around him and those who come after him.
Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a stunt motorcycle rider touring with a state fair. When his job takes him back to Schenectady, New York, he learns he has a baby son with local waitress Romina (Eva Mendes). Determined to be in his child’s life, Glanton quits the fair but turns to bank robbery when he can’t make ends meet. The story is divided into three sections as we follow the impact of that decision on a local cop (Bradley Cooper), his family, and Romina’s family.
The ripple-effect narrative is fairly familiar; the strength of The Place Beyond the Pines is its execution. Crime is a ruinous violation in this film’s world, every transgression an affront even when well-intentioned or born from pain.When Gosling attacks or threatens, it feels grotesque. When Cooper blackmails someone, their refusal to shake his hand isn’t merely a macho snub: Cooper now feels tainted to us. Cianfrance uses these crime fiction plot devices to not just drive the story, but to examine them as tragic mistakes with a powerful legacy.
His sympathy for desperate or misguided people is what makes this a character piece rather than a polemic against breaking the law. The ambiguity of individual crimes and the entrenchment of corruption are forces the characters have to grapple with, not be condemned by. Cooper’s descent is precipitated by his own bravery in the line of duty, which leads him to discover the corruption in his own department. In the final act, Dane deHaan’s character is so tormented by secrets kept from him that he takes drastic action, colliding with another character whose life was altered by the same incident that has so devastated him. The Place Beyond the Pines is a miasma of sadness and culpability.
Immersing yourself in this murky world is still enriching because of Cianfrance’s tenderness toward his characters. Most of them can be unpleasant when angry or vulnerable, but Cianfrance never demonises them despite their questionable decisions. But the film still positions us as if we’re looking down on them from above, observing them in their frailty from a privileged vantage. Mike Patton’s musical score and the use of pieces by Arvo Pärt and Ennio Morricone together have a chilly, distancing quality that’s paradoxically hypnotic. The score is occasionally reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s for Blue Velvet, with lush but menacing strings that intensify over moody shots of Schenectady at night.
The film recalls Lynch’s in other ways, following innocents who become exposed to a small town’s underbelly and in the process discover a penchant for darkness themselves. But The Place Beyond the Pines is less extravagant in its horrors; there is no equivalent of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. These horrors are more insidious: police officers illegally searching a house and asking for coffee while they search for money to steal, or a stoic man suddenly becoming violent while he builds a baby’s crib. If Blue Velvet was about the sadism lying beneath suburbia, The Place Beyond the Pines is about the withering of individuals and a community as they satisfy their own needs under the guise of altruism.
Cianfrance makes some missteps. The extent of DeHaan’s actions don’t feel justified by the home life we’ve been shown, and a key part of his story depends on a convenient meeting. Plus, the film is a touch long to pack the fullest punch, but its world is so intoxicating that experiencing more of it isn’t a hardship. Character interactions feel so genuine with their long pauses and murmurs, and the ambience of Schenectady so mournful and evocative, that if Cianfrance chose to apply a similar style to other genres, we’d be fortunate. He has a powerful command of aesthetic and atmosphere, and even if he doesn’t break new ground here, he reminds you of how rich and textured American crime drama can be when studios are willing to fund it.