The Place Beyond the Pines is Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious and often beautiful if over-flowing follow-up to his 2010 drama Blue Valentine, and like that film it revels in the pale and disappointed reflections when the bright hopefulness of youth is cast on the present darkness. For Cianfrance, aspirations and romanticism are dulled and surrender to the day-to-day pressures and wear-and-tear of real life. Blue Valentine was the dark side of the hopeless romance emulated in films like Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, showing what happens to a pair of lovers (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) who realize they’ve hit the end, their doom predestined from the start. The Place Beyond the Pines is Cianfrance taking on the theme of fathers and sons, structured as a trilogy of short stories of linked characters in a stew that boils over 15 years in Schenectady, New York. But an interesting taste of allusion in these two films bridges gritty drama to fantasy, a small locale to the cosmos. Blue Valentine, with its sci-fi romantic getaway hotels and “robot vaginas,” along with its future premonitions and discontinuities of communication, felt oddly back-lit by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as even empathetic exchanges between lovers was no more fruitful than the frustrated enmity between human astronaut and the HAL computer. Pines similarly led my memory down the same terrain, feeling guided by another father and son trilogy, Star Wars. Connecting modern drama to sci-fi spectacle and escapist fantasy, I wonder if Cianfrance is constructing a tragic thesis about this specific generation, raised on sci-fi and Hollywood escapism (the same transition of ’70s Hollywood to the ’80s that was the focus of Argo), in danger of choking on the debt incurred by its unimpeded idealism. Yet this generation’s destiny is still tied to the previous generation’s madness.
I guess there’s the more immediate question as to whether The Place Beyond the Pines is even a success, and at this point, seeing the film once a couple of days ago, I’m not certain if it’s a good film, an ear-worm picture that will grow on viewers over time, or a heavy-handed follow-up failure by a marvelous filmmaker who will need to finesse his craft. Many have argued of its merits as a rare epic of dozens of characters playing big roles, using broad gestures for its themes (not unlike the opera of another familial trilogy, The Godfather, which is really the type of filmmaking to which Cianfrance aspires; Pines also very much reminded me of Coppola’s late family opera, Tetro). Watching these gestures and motifs, I thought some obliqueness might benefit Cianfrance who, with his big structural layout of mirroring personalities and stunning tracking shots following each of them, including a bravura opener that stalks motorcycle boy Ryan Gosling from his trailer through a carnival and to a stunt-bike performance with two other bikers in an enclosed ball, seems bent on making a classic, almost literary, drama. His intimacy that was so precious with the two leads from Blue Valentine now wants to blow down a brick wall and pound emotions and characters into your memory cells, while at the same time the spectacle, though showy at times, is still a whisper.