I’d like to take this too far: in the stately, studied long take that opens “The Place Beyond The Pines,” the camera begins a traveling shot on a man’s shoulders, bare, tattooed—Ryan Gosling playing a peripatetic stuntman named Luke—moving across a carnival fairway toward a circus tent and, inside, to the “Globe of Death,” a symbol the shape, if not the size, of the earth itself, as well as the shape of the cross-generational, masculine micro-epic to come. Three motorcycles hum like bees, infernal, unending, repeating, and the camera, the cameraman, the film, we, move to its very edge, and the story begins within this planet, this dangerous, heedless motorized sphere, as we look upward at these stunt riders whirling, whirling, whirling.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” has many surprises, including its shape as an all-American minor apocalypse of Dickensian contour, a protean and sprawling multigenerational micro-epic, a dark flower with James Gray-scale ambition and a clanging pair of New York State balls. (Robert Towne’s script for “Chinatown” is a more fully rounded predecessor with a site-specific allegorical title.) Fate falls on men, and on their sons. In Derek Cianfrance’s third feature, fate falls like one very attractive truckload of bricks.
Set in Schenectady, New York, which lore tells was a Mohawk name for “the place beyond the pines,” the plot is a triptych, and its revelations could be sullied by callow synopsis, although it’s important to mention that Luke’s skills turn to the robbing of banks in upstate New York in a vaguely defined time period. I missed a chance to interview Cianfrance, which would have been an intrigue, partly because of how much I admire “The Place Beyond The Pines,” but also how, initially, I had an uncommonly angry, irrational loathing toward the bad-man-bad-marriage sex turns of his “Blue Valentine.” Still, he’s specific and articulate in every piece I’ve read, including the press kit, in which he cites several major impetuses for the dozens of drafts and years of work to make this movie, including the birth of a second son and a reading of Jack London with an understanding of the urge to make one’s bloodline survive. As well as saying the film began with Abel Gance, whose three-screen “Napoleon” he saw in film school: “I became obsessed with the idea of making a triptych film. I had been a student with Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, who rooted me in aesthetics and formalism. However, Phil used to always tell me, ‘Form must illuminate content.’ I thought I could make the three screens sing, but I didn’t know the song. So I kept marinating on the idea of three until I had a story with purpose.” Decades later…
The form of “The Place Beyond The Pines” breathes with a rich, pictorial naturalism crafted by documentary-trained cinematographer-cameraman Sean Bobbitt (“Hunger,” “Shame,” “Wonderland”), who works handheld as his own camera operator, and with preference for natural lighting, shot on film, lending a bright yet seemingly offhand richness to the imagery.
Cianfrance shares operatic ambition with James Gray: aside from Eva Mendes’ appearance in “We Own The Night,” there are themes, fragments the two writer-directors share. (The legacy of powerbrokers; mistaken ideas of what from your past to hold onto; the corruption of institutions as demonstrated by police misconduct.) But most importantly, they share the ambition to tell stories through atmosphere, physical activity, bold, bursting icons. Details are never less than specific, including the rhyme of the frosted-glass front door of a wealthy man’s home patterned like Luke’s crude spiderweb tattoos. A second glimpse a second time of a fast-food shack’s “Hot Dog” sign is a wallop, and the trailing away of the smallest of American flags in the final scene rebuke larger, earlier flags on poles, lank in dead air. Upstate New York chokes on summer greenery. Even ice cream stings, starting with the line, “Every time he tries ice cream for the rest of his life, he’s gonna see my fuckin’ face.” Quotidian lines are delivered wearily—”You passin’ through?” “Just settlin’ in.”—but with great physical weight: they’re acted, embodied, more than merely enunciated, a sweet hair shy of pretension: “It must get lonely.”
The drench of masculine conflict pushes women to the side. Fathers and sons echo through each other, not family, not community. Other characters include Bradley Cooper as Avery Cross (oh-oh), a law student-turned-cop who pursues Luke; his father, a lion of local power, a retired judge (Harris Yulin); a snaky cop (duh, Ray Liotta); and a mechanic-turned-fence played by Ben Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom,” “Killing Them Softly”) who remains one of the silkiest, most magnetic of contemporary character actors: gentle, louche, ever-threatening. Brilliant blue eyes chill: Cooper’s are lit blue-to-emerald and while corners of scenes drop to shadow or shade, Gosling, Cooper and Mendelsohn’s eyes gleam cold and proud and perhaps just a little fearful. The young actors of the third panel of the triptych have their own evolution of the essential conflicts: the ghost of Nicholas Ray cocks an eyebrow with great interest.
Serendipity, coincidence, lives tracking unwittingly along punishing parallels: convenient screenwriting, chance, fate? A motorcycle’s toothed whir means something else at the end, as does wide open sky and the title itself, as all widens with an open ending far beyond the place beyond the pines. The buzz softens, ebbs, fades. The potential of quietude in the place beyond “home.” You don’t know what you have until you have left it, escaped it, put it in the dust, run the fuck to the horizon, hardly looking back.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” opens Friday at Landmark Century. A trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.