The gospel according to Philip Larkin espouses that, whether they mean to or not, your parents will always f**k you up and “add some extra, just for you”.
Larkin’s most famous and acerbic poem, This Be The Verse, could well have been the operating manual for director Derek Cianfrance’s absorbing and operatic second feature, The Place Beyond The Pines.
The sins of the father weigh heavily on the young sons of lawless, directionless Luke (Ryan Gosling) and rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose lives intersect in harrowing fashion and send out shock waves that reverberate years later.
Cianfrance chronicled a relationship’s happy beginnings and painful collapse in his previous feature, the acclaimed Blue Valentine, and that film’s exploration of how bad choices made with ‘good’ intentions can come back to haunt you finds a parallel in this more ambitious and superior follow-up.
The Place Beyond The Pines also sees a reunion between Cianfrance and Gosling, whose star wattage has brightened significantly since Blue Valentine, most notably as a result of 2011’s fantastic Drive. In that film Gosling played an intense stunt performer moonlighting as a getaway driver; here he plays an intense motorcycle stuntman who discovers he has a son with ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes).
Determined not to follow his father’s example Luke vows to provide for young Jason and does so by robbing a bank, but as he gets carried away he’s warned by his friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn): “If you’re going to ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.”
Avery, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of a split-second decision made in the line of duty that gradually eats away at him. Wracked with guilt, he becomes distant from his infant son AJ and wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and starts listening to his district attorney father, who believes Avery should utilise the hero status he gained after that fateful decision by turning his back on the police force and entering politics.
The film’s title derives from the loose English translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, a city in upstate New York where the picture events are set. The city itself plays as big a part as its characters, who are all anchored to their surroundings and the pits they have dug for themselves.
Gosling is electrifying as the charismatic, but foolish Luke, equal parts Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. His method has been criticised in the past for being overly showy and inauthentic, but many of his critics were won over by his magnetic performance in Drive and here proves it wasn’t a one-off. Gosling does much of his acting with his piercing blue eyes, which can convey shame, self-hatred and sociopathy in the space of a single blink.
Cooper gives a career-best turn as the conflicted and guilt-ridden Avery. It’s good to see Cooper stretching himself well beyond the smug and arrogant efforts he put into The Hangover franchise and The A-Team. He proved he had chops in Silver Linings Playbook, but here gives a more rounded and reined in performance.
The superb supporting cast include Mendes, who is beautifully naturalistic as the stability-seeking Romina, the terrific Mendelsohn as deadbeat Robin and a snake-like Ray Liotta doing what he does best as corrupt cop Deluca.
Much of the criticism of The Place Beyond The Pines has centred on Cianfrance’s decision to include what amounts to an extended coda set 15 years after the film’s earlier events in which the now teenage sons of Luke and Avery cross paths to devastating effect. Some have found fault with the neat way in which Cianfrance ties a bow on what until then had been a freeform narrative, while others have questioned why it’s there in the first place.
I for one feel the film is enriched by the scenes involving AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) as they provide a deeper context and nicely echo moments that have gone before. When Jason rides his bike down a country road, for instance, it brings to mind the momentary freedom Luke feels on his motorcycle. We don’t need to know what happened in those intervening 15 years, Cianfrance gives us enough to work it out for ourselves.
If Blue Valentine was an impressive calling card, The Place Beyond the Pines marks Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there.