Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine trades almost exclusively in discomfort. As the film unfolds and the viewer experiences the simultaneous courtship and dissolution of a relationship, the no-frills wandering camera puts the viewer right there in the trenches. From bad comb-overs to canine neglect to a terribly sad motel rendezvous, it is very much an unglamorous look at a doomed relationship between people more in love with the idea of being in love than one another. What makes watching that movie difficult is its contentment in just showing. The minimal plot points it strives to hit underscore the attention being paid to aesthetic over narrative, happy with meticulously capturing pock marks and beer bellies and despondent longing through windows without feeling obliged to wrap things up neatly. Where Cianfrance’s follow up, The Place Beyond the Pines, differs is it applies that same lived in quality of the characters and neighboring society to a story which unfolds with the abrupt, calculated and sometimes seismic shifts of epic literature.
Not unlike The Wrestler, (another protagonist who works in a physically demanding niche profession), Place opens with a camera tightly following Ryan Gosling’s Luke Glanton as he meanders through a neon carnival accompanied by buzzing (of people and on the soundtrack) to a tent where a throng of enchanted spectators chant for him and his “Heartthrobs” to perform hazardous motorcycle tricks in an imposing steel sphere. Our first glimpse of Gosling provides the characterization of a great opening chapter: muscles, hand drawn tattoos scribbled across the chest, neck, arms and face, lit cigarette hanging precariously from his lips while practicing with a butterfly knife. This, all before donning a sleeveless Metallica “Ride the Lightning” shirt and a red leather biker jacket. A man seemingly off the rails though acutely aware of it.
This is about as good as Gosling’s life is going to get in the movie. He is reintroduced to Eva Mendes, a woman with whom he had a fling when his circuit was in town the year prior. Upon discovery that this produced a child, Gosling awkwardly tries to ingratiate himself into Mendes’ reasonably settled life (work, school, husband and mother, house). There remains an undeniable attraction, however, either to the bad-boy lifestyle or the pull of reuniting with the man who donated half the genetic material to the boy she dedicates herself to each day. When Gosling seizes upon this minor opening to stick around and be a part of these people’s lives, he teams up with a fellow survivor at life’s perimeter (Ben Mendelsohn) working for a short time as a mechanic at his unintentionally abandoned auto-shop and then, at Mendelsohn’s proposition, as a small time bank robber.
Together, Gosling manages smash and grab jobs and flees into the back of a waiting storage truck which Mendelsohn quickly shuts and drives off. The small time heists solve a few of life’s problems for awhile – they grant some monetary flexibility, re-invigorate some dormant impulses. It’s when Gosling tries to deal with people the way he deals with his job and his crimes, that it becomes apparent this man will forever be on society’s outskirts. Sensing his chance to give at least one minor contribution to the world, namely provide his estranged son some money, he takes a chance which alienates his partner and, indirectly, irrevocably defines his (though really Mendes’) family’s world for at least a generation.
Naturally, in a small town like Schenectady (whose Native American translation approximates “The Place Beyond The Pines”), all this bank crime would attract notice of the local police department. Bradley Cooper, a golden boy rookie with a law degree and a district attorney Father, finds himself enmeshed in the chase to apprehend Gosling and, subsequently, the fallout that arises when the police re-appropriate the funds which had been allocated to Gosling’s infant son. With some time off following an injury sustained on duty, Cooper finds it difficult being in the house with his own young son. The familial tension is intensified when both his wife (Rose Byrne) and Father question his desire to be a street-level police enforcer, when his education, name, eloquence and, now, injury would seem to make him a dream political candidate.
Whatever idealism Cooper was personally championing in his “regular cop” role quickly diminished the moment the seized money, and all the favors and misremembering and head turning it implies come calling. Faced with the not uncommon movie cop conundrum of being the guy on the street making the real difference yet battling the day to day corruption – Cooper gravitates towards the other civil service career trope – the politician who gets his hands dirty to affect the greater good.
Where The Place Beyond The Pines really goes for it is the last half hour or so. After spending enough time with Gosling’s pulsing Id and Cooper’s conflicted do gooder, the movie leaps forward while panning back. While directly acknowledging that these people’s life decisions impact the families they erect and send out into the world, in reality, people just keep living. What seemed so immediate and charged for Gosling, or so unbearably momentous for Cooper, a mere generation later is relegated to newspaper articles. When an entire person’s life and all their exploits become fuzzy memories or oral tradition, that’s when they become at once irrelevant and mythical – historical fact yet ultimately unknowable. And it seems Place wants to suggest that these intricate Father-Son relationships and generational debits and credits are definitely inescapable, but their meaning is transmuted with the passing of time.
A few items make recurring appearances throughout the film (a pair of sunglasses, a bag of money, a photograph), and just as how in a great book the reader does a double take when they’re encountered, here the viewer makes a connection. It doesn’t scream of flashing “this is important” signs, either – it happens for the most part organically, and is a testament to the deft touch required to make material this emotionally charged consistently engaging and believable. The most staggering piece of symmetry the movie presents is the shot of a bike traveling down a sylvan bordered, undulating road while hauntingly sparse piano notes trickle into the theater – its rider searching for something he can only feel and which the audience only knows, both yearning for some middle ground.