Derek Cianfrance’s at once striking and jejune visual vocabulary was accurately described by Richard Brody at the time of the heroically performed Blue Valentine’s release as a brand of prefabricated poetry: “Cianfrance borrows his methods and his moods from a grab-bag of clichés. [Arnold] Schoenberg expanded music to a new world of chromaticism; Cianfrance reduces the cinema to monochrome sentiment.” Not to mention monochrome ideas. Unlike James Gray, a more sneakily lyrical surveyor of working-class struggle whose films derive their grace and import from a subtle accumulation of seemingly minute quotidian details and how such nuances reflect character, the unmistakably talented Cianfrance uses ostentatious style to caulk over the vacuousness with which the barely investigated lives of his characters are made subservient to connect-the-dots plotting.
The Place Beyond the Pines aggressively feigns poetic authority, though you wouldn’t know it exactly from the opening crotch-level view of Ryan Gosling’s six pack, a liberally inked slab of muscle that probably isn’t intended as the presumably metaphysical terrain of the film’s pretentious title. Faceless to us at first, Gosling’s Luke jabs a knife into a wall before sliding on his sleeveless shirt and marching toward the steel cage where he and two other motorcycle daredevils will enthrall an excited crowd at an amusement park. Cianfrance’s camera, which trails behind Luke in rather shameless Dardennian lockstep, breaks character just long enough to first catch a glimpse of the blond Gosling’s expectedly glum mug and then to clearly allow a stunt double to take the actor’s place inside the cage. But who’s counting, as what truly matters here is how this opening scene’s pageantry signifies Cianfrance’s conviction to helping Gosling cultivate his mystique as a, hey girl, disaffected, vaguely dangerous, neo-Brandoesque wild one, and completely on his own terms.
To be fair, the film’s fixation on Gosling’s masculine aura is apt insofar as the story grows into a tone poem about male identity and father-son relationships, but if these themes don’t exactly bloom, it’s because Cianfrance’s indulgence of ellipses feels like a copout, and one that makes ciphers of his characters, especially his female ones. The film passes by as a series of fragments, airy articulations of, first, Gosling’s layabout to take care of the child he never knew he fathered with a waitress, Romina (Eva Mendes), then as a rookie police officer and future district attorney’s (Bradley Cooper) struggle to reconcile his sense of right and wrong with his bald-faced professional ambition, and finally as a collision between two teenaged inheritors (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) of their respective father’s sins. Throughout, Cianfrance fast-forwards through the deep stuff—the compulsion that draws Romina to the amusement park, the marital strain that must have led Avery (Cooper) and Jennifer (Rose Byrne) to divorce—so as to give prominence to the (melo)drama of the characters stumbling upon their shared histories.
The Place Beyond the Pines never reaches a climax because it’s always in one, distilling the lives of its characters to their tensest moments: Luke heisting banks to support his newborn; Avery ratting out the corrupt cops in his force; their sons, oblivious to how their paterfamilias are linked, flirting with disaster in and out of school as they circle each other like boxers. It’s a daisy chain of physical and emotional violence that sacrifices emotional specificity to often-purple marriages of sight and sound; indeed, there are more dimensions to the pool of blood that flows from one character’s fractured skull than there are to Luke’s compulsion to rob more banks than are obviously necessary to buy his baby boy a crib.
Of course, it’s almost canny how Cianfrance unremittingly pairs the narrative to a Badalamenti-by-way-of-Samsara score by Faith No More’s Mike Patton that accommodates everything from Gregorian chants to Lisa Simpson-grade jazz solos. (Long after Luke’s son has been baptized by Romina and her live-in boyfriend, the church bells still ring.) Cianfrance uses music to blow up a flimsy story beholden to simplistically romantic notions of masculinity, fatherhood, and sin to the level of Greek tragedy. It’s a dazzling con that crumbles fast and hard beneath the weight of its ridiculously relentless sense of self-importance.