RYAN GOSLING IS ‘ELECTRIFYING’ IN THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
★★★★✩ National release
T(MA15+) HE epic is out of fashion these days. It was once defined as a film conceived on a spectacular scale, focusing on the actions of a great hero (usually a historical figure), with a cast of thousands and an obligatory running time of at least three hours. That sort of epic has been frowned on in Hollywood for about a half century — ever since Cleopatra destroyed some notable reputations and came close to bankrupting Fox in 1963.
But there’s still a place, thank goodness, for the ambitious film with lofty ideas. I’d call Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines an epic. It has no more than a half dozen main characters, no battles, no crowds, no great speeches or spectacles, and most of it was shot in a rural backwater in upstate New York. But it’s epic in its emotional range, its depth, its eye for truth. With a narrative spanning three generations, it may signal a return to the grand traditions of Hollywood storytelling.
Cianfrance made the haunting romantic drama Blue Valentine in 2010, and The Place Beyond the Pines has a similar emotional intensity. In some ways the films complement each other, with their doomed lovers, their mood of tragic futility. But his new film is a much more spirited and engaging one. Essentially it’s a crime story, and I’ve seen it compared in all seriousness with The Godfather, perhaps the greatest criminal epic of all. But the crimes committed in Cianfrance’s film are petty and amateurish by comparison. There are no ruling families, no dynasties, no drug lords, no executions. The action unfolds on an intimate scale and there is something endearingly folksy, even comic, in the exploits of the characters. But not far below the surface is a similar world of sinister reality, of vengeance, of betrayal, of corruption. The effect is chilling and strange.
It is really three films in one, each with a beginning and an end, each with its principal character. And how refreshing it is — in an age of vacuous blockbusters — to find a Hollywood drama in which a complex narrative unfolds logically and the characters are clearly defined. The problem for reviewers — a familiar one — is to avoid giving too much away. Cianfrance (who wrote the screenplay with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) has included one or two brutal plot twists that are an organic part of the film’s structure. It’s hard to discuss the film without describing them. But at the risk of confusing readers, I’ll do my best.
The setting is Schenectady, New York, and we open with a bravura tracking shot through a crowded funfair. The camera follows a few metres behind the back of the man in front, who is heading with purposeful stride towards his destination, stopping at last before one of those spherical cages in which motorcycle stunt riders do their stuff. This is Luke Glandon (Ryan Gosling), who loses no time revving up his bike and joining two other riders in the cage. It’s a breathtaking sequence, alive with mystery and danger. But stunt-riding may be Luke’s only skill. We sense — and Luke probably thinks himself — that with a little more luck he coulda been a contender. With his blond hair, nonchalantly drooping fag and copious tatts, he has the sleazy allure of the young Brando or James Dean’s wayward spirit in Rebel Without a Cause. After his daredevil ride he seeks out his former lover Romina (Eva Mendes), who survives with casual work at the funfair. ‘‘ Who’s that guy?’’ asks Luke, indicating the year-old toddler in Romina’s arms. ‘‘ He’s yours,’’ says Romina.
Luke may be dumb, but he has a conscience, and resolves to support Romina and baby Jason. (Never mind that Romina is already living with Kofi, a belligerent black guy who takes a dim view of Luke’s sudden emergence on the domestic scene.) But how can Luke find money to support his child? Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), an old crony who runs a car repair yard, suggests they rob a few banks — and hey, it’s not a bad idea. With his riding skills, Luke can make a quick getaway on his motorbike and hide his bike (and the cash) in the back of Robin’s van.
The scheme works nicely — for a while. Gosling is an electrifying presence in these early scenes, and the heists are as tense as anything in