Director Derek Cianfrance’s first feature, Blue Valentine (2010), was an absorbing, intense study of love, commitment and relationships. Actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams delivered brilliant performances in a movie that was difficult to sit through, mainly because of its naturalistic and brutally honest style. But what we are learning about Cianfrance with his followup feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is that not only does Cianfrance have a unique style, but he knows a thing or two about storytelling. That, my friends, is a combination every movie lover craves—and rarely gets.
The Place Beyond the Pines is actually three movies in one, but, unlike Cloud Atlas, it never feels too ambitious or too big for itself. It plays like a really good novel, taking its time to get to know the characters, then to tell their stories in believable and—most important—interesting ways. I will not reveal anything about the plot here because this is a movie that needs to be experienced knowing as little as possible. But what I can say is that it is a movie about human themes of love, parenthood, desperation, obligation, justice, morality and retribution.
But mostly, The Place Beyond the Pines is a challenging and thoughtful meditation on the themes of karma and the cyclical nature of existence—what goes around, comes around. What I love about this movie is, much like Life of Pi, you can take from it exactly as much or as little as you want to. And, also like Life of Pi, it has deep intentions hidden within a well-told story.
But it is the style that sets this film apart. Think of the opposite of “polished” and that’s what this movie is. Cianfrance makes full use of handheld cameras and he loves loves loves closeups. Normally, this kind of overly obvious film-making would bug me, but Cianfrance has figured out how to make it a part of the story and this naturalistic style really works for him. This movie never lost my interest, the stories kept me involved and if you’re going to make a movie that is all about intense closeups, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are the actors you want. Man, are they nice to look at.
While Cooper seems slightly out of place in this intense indie drama, you totally understand why Cianfrance went to Gosling again. He works so well with the director’s style, as Gosling can do so much without speaking a syllable and his talents as an actor totally lend themselves to a director intent on creating mood and atmosphere. Cooper is a far more superficial actor, but Cianfrance is able to coax a somewhat believable performance from him. Eva Mendes is fine (although how they made her so ugly is a real conundrum), as is the rest of the cast. But this is, again, Cianfrance’s movie. This is a director (and co-screenwriter) with a lot to say and he knows how to say it. It’s not perfect and it’s far from a masterpiece, but The Place Beyond the Pines is a worthwhile evening spent in the theatre for anyone who loves great storytelling. And, as the late, great Roger Ebert said, “a movie is not what it is about, but about how it is about it.” Exactly.