It's perpetual summer in the gorgeous new film The Place Beyond the Pines, but the mood is decidedly wintry. Unfolding like a juicy, sprawling novel, Derek Cianfrance's expertly pitched melodrama trades in a haunted feeling of inexorability and the regret that follows. A deeply felt, classically tinged saga, The Place Beyond the Pines is, for my money, the best film of 2013 so far. I know it's a little hackneyed to begin a review that way, with a back-of-the-taxi-ready blurb, but the late winter and early spring is such a dreary season for movies that it feels like something of a miracle that this film somehow sprang up out of the earth and restored my temporarily shaken faith in the medium.
Cianfrance's last film was the gloomy hipsters-in-the-woods marriage tragedy Blue Valentine. That film certainly had its strong points, chief among them a woozy, wandering aesthetic that gave spluttering indie meaning to what was, essentially, a pretty simple tale. With Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance, working with the terrific cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, again creates a mood of dreamy dazedness, but has wrapped it around a story as dense and weighty as any Greek tragedy. From that odd mixture he creates a picture that is as bruising as it is beautiful.
I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the film is designed as a triptych, essentially giving us three inextricably linked short stories. In the first, Ryan Gosling plays Luke, another of his artfully disheveled wounded angel creatures. This shtick from Gosling has gotten old, and I fully expected to be bothered by Luke — a saturnine stunt motorbike rider with a teardrop tattoo and, seemingly, a single tattered T-shirt to his name. And at times he does indeed feel too Cool for the otherwise credible world around him. But there is a thrumming core of true humanity to the character, and the performance, that redeems it. Early on in the film, Luke learns that he has a son from a brief fling he had with a diner waitress (it's always a diner waitress) named Romina (Eva Mendes) the previous summer. Wanting to provide for his baby boy in a way that his father never did for him, Luke drifts into a criminal lifestyle that was probably, with all his hooded soft-guy menace, an inevitability. He starts robbing banks, quick jobs involving a roaring motorcycle getaway. Cianfrance films these scenes bracingly, the noise of the motorbike making a sudden, zooming hellscape of a leafy Schenectady street.
Oh, yeah, this movie takes place, very specifically, in that actual "place beyond the pines," Schenectady, N.Y. Cianfrance has a gift for locality like few filmmakers do, and he's done great service by the natural beauty and old-growth Americana of his particular setting. His Schenectady, like much of real-life upstate New York, prominently features fat midsummer leaves that are almost too green, they wander into darkness in a way that fills an otherwise lovely day with a strange but elemental feeling of dread. At two different points in the film, a character drives deeper and deeper into the looming woods toward something ominous. The light of the day is slowly blotted out by the tree canopy as the tension and desperation, the despair and defeatedness too, compound and mount. It's a gripping, if somewhat obvious, visual motif that sends this picture swooning to the edges of existential oblivion, the abyss teasing at us just, well, beyond those pines.
The two people who take these woodsy drives make up the latter two thirds of the film. The first is a terrific Bradley Cooper, playing Avery, a young guy from a well connected family who decided to become a beat cop after law school instead of aspiring to the heights of his judge father. His life briefly intersects with Luke's, a crucial moment that echoes throughout the film. Ambitious and principled to a fault, Avery quickly rises in the ranks of the department, but he all the while maintains an isolating guardedness, a cover to protect a wound of guilt and regret that refuses to heal. Like many a good meaty novel, the story then zooms forward many years, the third act placing us in roughly the present day, when Luke's son Jason (Dane DeHaan) is a shy high school student, while Avery's similarly aged son AJ (Emory Cohen) is a petty thug with a confirmation chain and a perpetual smirk. DeHaan has, over the past few years, proven himself an exciting actor, and here does another variation on his petulant dark soul routine. But it's Cohen who truly astounds. That we are looking at the same young actor who played Debra Messing's dopey, whiny son on Smash is astonishing. Cohen has the wannabe gangsta cadence and accent of a middle class Northeastern white kid down so perfectly it gave me chills, evoking memories of boys I knew in high school who were just that way. It's a stunning performance, capturing all the layers of swagger and insolence lying atop insecurity and anger that is so many a teenage boy's makeup.
To say anything about what transpires between AJ and Jason, and between their fathers, would be revealing too much, but know that by film's end Cianfrance and his company have painted a gloriously rich and moving picture of regret and legacy, of parents failing their children while trying, at all costs, to do just the opposite. There is ultimately nothing subtle about The Place Beyond the Pines — some moments verge on turgidity, even — but it is so finely realized, told with such compassion and a caring eye for detail, that its Big Themes and well-worn tropes don't come across cliched or tired. Instead they are beautifully renewed; The Place Beyond the Pines tells an old story with a vitality that feels like reinvention. At the film's graceful and heartbreaking end, I had the feeling of having finished a good book, putting it on my lap for a moment, not wanting to leave its world just yet. It's not terribly often that your heart aches not just at how a movie ended, but that it ended at all.