The Place Beyond the Pines is a difficult film to rate; it’s undeniably exciting and innovative, but its reach often exceeds its grasp. The film is a significant departure from Derek Cianfrance’s last film, Blue Valentine, which was an intensely intimate experience filmed in a grubby, shaky vérité style. His new film is more expansive, portraying its far-reaching narrative with classical, accomplished filmmaking. The opening shot is the best thing put to film this year, give or take a Spring Breakers.
Cianfrance’s unique triptych structure is ambitious, and grants the film much of its power. It feels like a television show condensed into a movie, creating real scope without sacrificing characterisation thanks to accomplished editing. The way the film “restarts” its narrative is occasionally a limitation: The Place Beyond the Pines feels every one of its 140 minutes, and the last third is somewhat disappointing, resting on the shoulders of actors who can’t match Cooper or Gosling’s talent. The density of the plot also necessitates some clumsy exposition, at odds with the subtly executed theme, an elaboration upon Shakespeare’s “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.”
The similarities between Drive and Cianfrance’s film are obvious, if mostly skin-deep. Yes, the two films feature Ryan Gosling playing a reserved loner of few words who forms a strong bond with a young mother, a bond that’s complicated by the woman’s partner and ultimately erupts into violence. But there is a difference – in Drive Gosling drives cars, whereas in Pines he drives a motorcycle!
Of course, the two characters exist in very different films. But there’s one scene that’s almost identical in both films – perhaps a conscious homage by Cianfrance to Refn’s film, perhaps an inadvertent coincidence.
Each film carefully hints at the simmering violence within Gosling’s character. In Drive, the first significant hint is a casual yet truly menacing threat to a stranger at a bar, whereas Pines is more subtle, cutting from Ben Mendelsohn explaining “You don’t show them the gun” to Gosling shoving one in a bank attendant’s face. Each film unveils those violent tendencies with remarkably similarity – a brutal confrontation armed with a tool (a hammer in Drive, a spanner in Pines).
The link becomes inescapable as each scene concludes with a stunning shot, gazing up at Gosling with new eyes – in both films, his expression grim; in both films, his true nature revealed.