Where Blue Valentine was epic in its intimacy, turning a macro lens on one relationship from go to woe, Derek Cianfrance’s follow up is epic in perspective, spanning two generations of two families and their intertwined fates, with grand themes of sons and fathers, loss and forgiveness. And it’s as ambitious in style as it is in content, compounding the eerie gothic horror of David Lynch with the majesty of Terrence Malick. The effect is bewitching, if occasionally overwrought…
The setting is the verdant backwater of Schenectady, New York (which could be straight out of Twin Peaks), where the film opens in the midst of a travelling carnival. Enter Luke (Ryan ‘Hey Girl’ Gosling, who also starred in Blue Valentine), the resident motorbike rider in the dome of death. Cianfrance quickly sketches his character as fearless, footloose and fancy-free – and then gives him something to care about: a baby son he never knew he had. The mother (Eva Mendes), a one-night-stand from his last trip through town, is now shacked up with a decent, stable, God-loving fellow – but she and the baby become an obsession for Luke, who determines not to repeat his own history but to instead insert himself into their family as husband, father and provider.
The first half of the 140-minute film focuses on Luke as his best attempts to be a better man than his own father combust in slow motion; you can see where it’s going, but the effect is no less compelling or tragic. Then the film does something pretty radical in the scheme of narrative cinema: it switches protagonists. It takes up with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop from a wealthy family, who may or may not have political ambitions. The less you know about the plot from here the better. Suffice to say, if you do succumb to this story, you’ll find yourself sucked into a deeply moving, melancholic fugue.
Arguably, one of the film’s flaws is that Cooper’s role and performance aren’t strong enough to follow Gosling’s, which leaves the audience looking back over their shoulders – distracted. Another weakness is the almost distracting surfeit of style, which includes some odd choices: crane shots of a lone car driving on a road through a forest are overlaid by synth chords scream Twin Peaks; the use of the same Arvo Pärt piece that featured prominently in There Will Be Blood and Malick’s To the Wonder seems lazy.
Overall, however, the soundtrack is one of the film’s most effective weapons: Mike Patton’s original compositions, all synthy and chordal, set a ominous tone à la Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks work, interspersed with lighter fare like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, and weighty, ‘sacred’ numbers from Vladimir Ivanoff and Pärt.
BY DEE JEFFERSON
The Place Beyond The Pines is in cinemas now.