Writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s hotly anticipated follow-up to Blue Valentine, his extraordinary film about the breakdown of a marriage, opens with a long continuous take, as Lucas Glanton (Ryan Gosling), with bleached blond hair, tatty tattoos, a Metallica T-shirt and red leather jacket, strolls to his scrambler bike, ready for a daredevil ride around a fairground ‘globe of death’ in a small town just outside of Schenectady, New York. After the show, Luke meets up with local waitress Romina (Eva Mendes), and is stunned to discover that their one night stand a year earlier produced an infant son, Jason, who now lives with Romina and her new man, Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Determined to get to know Jason (“I wasn’t around my dad,” he says, “and look how I turned out”), Luke quits the travelling fair and takes a crummy job at a local auto repair shop, run by Robin Van Der Zee (played by deadbeat and redneck specialist Ben Mendelsohn). Aware that Luke needs money for his new family, Robin clues him in to his lucrative sideline in bank robberies, laying down the rules that will ensure they’re never caught. Initially resistant, Luke soon warms to the idea, believing that the robbery proceeds will give him the leverage he needs to tempt Romina away from Coffey, and allow them to start a new life together somewhere far away. But Luke, an adrenalin junkie who no longer gets his fix from motorcycle stunt riding, becomes addicted to the thrill and the money, refusing to heed Robin’s ominous warning: “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”
Fifty minutes into the film, Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper shows up as a fresh-faced Schenectady police officer, Avery Cross, who tangles with Luke during one of his motorcycle-enabled bank robberies. I won’t be the critic who reveals what happens next – nobody should – but suffice to say the remaining ninety minutes (at two hours twenty minutes, the film is in no hurry to spill its many secrets and reveal its twists) takes a startling new direction, making a mockery of every screenwriting book ever written, and lending the story a novelistic structure which adds to its sense of literate worth. Thematically, The Place Beyond the Pines could be looked at as a film about the ripple effect of morally dubious or repugnant choices, and how the sins of one generation are visited upon the next, in this case represented by Emory Cohen and Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s Harry Osborn), the latter building on his reputation as one of the most promising actor of his generation.
As with Blue Valentine, Cianfrance draws terrific performances out of his cast, but this time the film’s higher profile will likely draw the kind of awards attention that was largely denied to his previous film. Gosling, who proved his acting abilities in Lars and the Real Girl, Half Nelson (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Blue Valentine (for which he should have received his second), before cementing his movie star status with a Steve McQueen-esque turn in Drive, now seems to have entered his Paul Newman phase; with his blond hair, lagoon-blue eyes and anti-authoritarian attitude, the name isn’t the only thing he has in common with Newman’s Cool Hand Luke – although Gosling’s rebel has a cause: the son he yearns to raise.
Although it could be argued that the third act strays into melodramatic territory, this would likely be forgiven, or at least overlooked, if the film had been made by a European filmmaker, such as Pedro Almodovar or Michael Haneke. Taken as a whole, however, The Place Beyond the Pines is a thoroughly satisfying piece of drama, the cinema equivalent of a hearty three-course meal prepared by a master chef. Despite its small-town setting and small-time characters, it’s deceptively epic in literary ambition, and it will be surprising if the cinema produces a more worthwhile place to visit this year than The Place Beyond the Pines. ★★★★★