[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. The Place Beyond the Pines opens tomorrow in wide release.]
Writer-director Derek Cianfrance‘s The Place Beyond the Pines is a rich, multi-layered narrative dripping with fatalism, guilt, honor, and no easy answers. It is an epic family saga that defies easy explanation, and rebels against the structure of a traditional narrative. His gripping tale shows split-second connections that last lifetimes, and old sins that reach across generations. Cianfrance has created a remarkable work that reaches a grand ambition with an intimate tale. And I have to tell you why it works without divulging the twists and turns of its razor-sharp script.
Without revealing any of the surprising plot developments, I’ll break down The Place Beyond the Pines in its broad arcs. The story follows three men: There’s Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt cyclist and ex-convinct who wants to find a way to support his infant son and make a family with his former fling and his son’s mother, Rosina (Eva Mendes). Avery (Bradley Cooper) is an ambitious rookie cop who becomes a local hero only to find himself forced to confront corruption in the police department. Finally, Jason (Dane DeHaan) is an aloof teenager searching for the truth about his deceased father. The stories are connected, but I won’t say how.
I will say they’re connected through brief, but crucial moments. Cianfrance has crafted an epic in three parts, and although the movie runs two hours and thirty minutes, the character arcs almost function as three 50-minute films with profound connections. This ingenious pacing makes the story feel like a vast journey, but one that’s never exhausting. The story eschews a traditional structure, which keeps us wondering what will happen next. I never knew how the narrative would click together, and it’s only when the whole picture is revealed that it finally comes into focus.
And even when it’s clear, the film can be maddeningly obtuse, but in a rewarding fashion. We’re invited to see how a split-second can reverberate across years, and while the characters in The Place Beyond the Pines make choices, some of the biggest consequences are reverberations of snap decisions or chance discovery rather than a carefully considered judgment. Cianfrance isn’t out to condemn or to create some cosmic system of retribution through a contrived series of strained coincidences. He lets the character’s actions play out, and lets the chips fall where they may.
This kind of organic development requires acting that flows with the story rather than overwhelms it, and while Cianfrance has written and directed a terrific picture, the movie wouldn’t work half as well without Gosling and DeHaan. Cooper gives a fine performance, but he constantly feels constrained by his character’s ambivalence. Gosling and DeHaan have the benefit of playing decisive, rebellious figures prone to anger, resentment, and confusion. Gosling once again provides the quiet intensity we’ve seen from him before, but it still retains all of its power. As for DeHaan, 2012 has truly been his year. Beginning with Chronicle, followed by Lawless, and now capped with The Place Beyond the Pines, he has repeatedly shown himself to be a remarkable actor who gives absolutely devastating performances.
I don’t know how The Place Beyond the Pines will play on a second viewing. Its revelations are so crucial to its impact, but I believe the film will keep its hold through the strength of its larger story. A tale built solely on twists and turns usually falls apart when it’s revisited, but Cianfrance has done far more than simply provide surprising revelations in his narrative. He has told a tremendous story about unintended legacies, struggling to break free from the lives others have unintentionally laid out for us, and yet perhaps being locked into a destiny when we know of no other path. There are crossroads, but there are also blind alleys, winding passages, and these avenues may lead us into uncharted territory or where our fathers tread before. Tightly constructed but never constrained, The Place Beyond the Pines is a marvel of storytelling, and a powerful exploration of conscious crimes and unexpected punishments.