Director Derek Cianfrance's last film, Blue Valentine, was a crushing study of a couple (played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) falling apart. It was beautifully made and well acted—I loved it—but the rawness of the emotions and the ambition of the structure (cycling between the present and the past, as we see the couple both in love and out of love) turned other people off. Cianfrance was striving for a gritty, casual authenticity that thrust you into the middle of his characters' romantic disintegration. It was bold and uncompromising, and it definitely wasn't to everyone's taste.
With his new film, Cianfrance is only getting more ambitious, and even though it's not nearly as successful as Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines suggests that no matter what pejorative you want to throw at him—pretentious, precious, self-serious—he knows how to stir up strong feelings about his characters and his movies. You'll wrestle with The Place Beyond the Pines, which on the whole can be more rewarding than simply letting a generically "good" movie simply wash over you without leaving an impression.
This character drama opens with Luke (Gosling), a rudderless motorcycle rider who performs in one of those Globes of Death as part of a traveling carnival. In one small town, he comes across Romina (Eva Mendes), an old flame who reveals that he got her pregnant. Wanting to support her and his son, he decides he needs to quit the carnival and be close to her, which is a problem since Romina doesn't really want him in her life. (She's living with another man now.) Undeterred, Luke eventually resorts to robbing banks, realizing that a few well-timed hits at small banks will provide enough of a windfall without putting him into too much danger.
That plan ends up working surprisingly well, and Cianfrance films the heists with a handheld, one-take immediacy that doesn't overdo the "realness" but does make each job gripping and visceral. (After being inundated for years with CG effects, you may be surprised how frightening it is to see a real person fly down the street on a motorcycle at high speed while being pursued.) But Luke's luck takes a turn when he encounters Avery (Bradley Cooper), a young cop who chases him down after a bungled heist. It wouldn't be fair to reveal precisely what happens when they square off, but their showdown shifts The Place Beyond the Pines into a new narrative direction, suddenly making Avery the film's main character.
At 140 minutes, Cianfrance's movie (which he wrote with Darius Marder and Ben Coccio) starts off as a study of a tormented loner trying to do the right thing by getting involved in bad things. But eventually we realize that The Place Beyond the Pines has much more on its mind than that, telling a story that moves across 15 years and is divided into thirds, each section devoted to a different central character. (The final third isn't primarily about Avery or Luke, but, in keeping with the movie's theme of how one generation's issues are passed along to the next, they're very much involved in what happens.) If Blue Valentine stared at its characters as if through a microscope, The Place Beyond the Pines adopts a wider perspective, and the movie is appropriately grand, taking on the grim tone of a folktale or an Old Testament parable. By juxtaposing Luke's situation with what we learn of Avery's—a man who seems to have been given certain advantages but has resisted them for his own reasons—Cianfrance is asking questions about how we cope with our circumstances, and how our past shapes our future.
These are thoughtful questions elevated by some strong performances. Gosling is doing a variation of his charismatic, down-on-his-luck Blue Valentine character, with a dash of his Drive antihero thrown in for good measure. As for Cooper, this is yet another recent portrayal from him that shows that he has some depth to go along with his good looks. In many ways, his character is a trickier one than Gosling's—he surprises us by some of the decisions he makes—and Cooper is largely effective, although he doesn't quite have the gravity to make Avery's unexpected transformation entirely work.
The Place Beyond the Pines does eventually start to resemble one of those misery-porn dramas in which bad things—or "ironically" bad, in a poetic-justice sort of way—keep happening to the characters, not because it's organic to the situation but because the filmmaker wants to make a thematic point. In the film's third section, especially, you can feel Cianfrance push the chess pieces around, getting everything to line up just so in order for him to elicit the maximum emotional impact. His new film is a bigger, bolder movie than Blue Valentine, but that one seemed wiser about human nature than this one does. Still, it's hard to fault a guy who's swinging for the bleacher seats. Some of his ideas are trite; some of his ideas are striking; and some of them have stayed with me more than two weeks after seeing the film. Even if The Place Beyond the Pines stumbles, Cianfrance has assembled a pretty great cast—including Ben Mendelsohn and Chronicle's Dane DeHaan—to give those ideas life. You may not always buy the movie, but you buy the people in it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.