Gritty thriller ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ brings heady drama to screen

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If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.” It is a single moment of electricity and its monumental reverberations that transfix us in Derek Cianfrance’s gripping new film, “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Tension is hurtled from one generation to another in a bloodied tapestry of legacy and descent.

Ideas of lineage run deep as the film takes us on an Icarian flight at 100 mph through the mist-heavy atmosphere of Schenectady, N.Y. Having proven himself a craftsman of tragedy with the most important romantic drama of the last decade, 2010’s “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance continues to rivet with this new story of fathers and sons.

The film opens with Ryan Gosling’s return as Cianfrance’s leading man, this time riding a motorcycle into the Cage of Death with a facial tattoo and the word “heartthrob” inked across his muscular gullet. The man has the untamed ferocity of a wild animal, and the tangibility of all-too-possible collision grows ripe. The film wastes no time with backstory — within a few minutes of the film, Luke (Gosling) takes off his helmet and his path crosses that of an ex-lover, Romina, played by an unmistakably earthy Eva Mendes. A few minutes later we see the stuntman stumble into fatherhood as he meets the son he did not know he had. Captured like a double-exposure photograph, Luke’s jagged edges crash full-contrast against the fragile innocence of his new baby son. Gosling manages to capture the precariousness of good intentions and volatile habits to an astonishing effect. “He’s like an inferno, and you don’t really want to bring him into your house,” Cianfrance mused in an interview with us.

In his rush to be the paternal provider so absent from his own life, Luke takes up arms with a shag-dog old truck driver played by Ben Mendelsohn and begins robbing the banks of Schenectady dry. The adrenaline of the act swells in Gosling’s coarse voice beckoning the tellers to bark like a dog for him and in the grit captured in the post-rush vomit of getting away with the insane.

The flight of the mythical “moto bandit,” much like a heady injection of something lethal, must meet its crash. Tailing fast behind Luke is ambitious Officer Avery Cross, portrayed by an appropriately bright-eyed Bradley Cooper. Fresh out of law school and tender with the unbruised idealism of textbook justice, Cross must carry his own part of the triptych with dizzying disillusionment. The fallout from his own sin, which “creates a toxic shame in him,” reels out and seeps into the life of his son.

Beyond all else, the film is about legacy — “our legacy of brutality,” as Cianfrance says. “The only reason we’re here is because our ancestors were monsters. Now we live in a domesticated world — we eat with forks and knives, but there’s a reverberation — it’s still in our nature.” It is this brutality that comes across so stunningly in the film. It is not about the gunshots, however. “I didn’t want to deal with violence in a way that was about how viscous I could make the brains, or how much I could put the sound mixer with the bones cracking in the skull. It wasn’t the visceral-ness of violence; it was the narrative of violence,” Cianfrance adds, confessing his dislike for blockbuster violence in cinema.

Ultimately this narrative is the film’s strength. The film challenges the viewer with the shock of real consequences while staying tight with a tension that spans generations. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is also effective in its portrayal of moral ambiguity. Every character is at times sympathetic and at others repulsive, weaving together a remarkable plausibility.

Like in “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance splits the story with a wedge of 15 years of unseen stagnation, bleak with an absence and aftermath Cianfrance upholds as not having “the sanctity of a flashback.” The film has the air of a Greek tragedy and explores “what time does to erode things, and also what time does to the distance of things that you can’t get away from.” With pitch-bent piano notes leadening already uneasy moments and a haunting theme by Mike Patton, Cianfrance once again attains full mastery of richening pathos through score.

In the end, it is the start of the movie, the lightning before the thunder, that hypnotizes. That is not to say the movie slackens from thereon. Some tension is diffused as the film shifts from the drama of blood spilled and futures on the brink to a seemingly less urgent arc of political ambition, complete with a menacing Ray Liotta straight out of Cianfrance’s favorite film, “Goodfellas.” In spite of this, “The Place Beyond the Pines” manages to hold taut with the realism of mortality. Cianfrance is daring here in a way that other directors are not. Risky choices in the division of the plot prove successful as the youngest actors, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, pull the film into its second hour with a palpable charge. DeHaan in particular gives a stunning performance — he fleshes out his character with a wounded savagery. Cianfrance casted the young actor because he had “such an internal world. I feel like there’s a storm raging inside of him.”

Actions are radial, consequences shockingly real, and one moment haunts the place beyond the pines through to the credits and lingers substantially beyond. Cianfrance’s Schenectady is its own world of father, son and no poetic justice of a holy ghost.

Contact Lu Han at [email protected].