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Derek Cianfrance's America

Class and fate in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'

Atsushi Nishijima/Focus Features

Movies have a rhythm: It can come in the editing or the re-working of old riffs, in the story structure and the pace of the talk. Once it derived from twenty-four frames a second. But brave movies can change their own rhythms.

So here is a film with a suspenseful story; it runs for an hour or so, fades to black, and then fades back in with the title “Fifteen Years Later”; and gets deeper in its second hour. But how can one talk about this impressive and moving picture without spoiling the articulated story? Well, let’s roam around the outskirts first. “The place beyond the pines” is roughly the Mohawk name for Schenectady, just north of Albany. The countryside is more beautiful than the city, and it is used in this film to sustain the idea of a shaky gathering in a wild place. That term covers a circle of uneasy characters and helps us to see that the liveliest America is always on its frontier, or edge. Then let’s add that the film is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who made Blue Valentinethat forlorn but furious love story with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple who can’t quite make it in marriage.

Those two were what once would have been called working class, but the condition is now rather more out of work. In Blue Valentine, Gosling plays a high school dropout with a temper and a drinking problem in place of a steady or satisfying job. In this new film, Gosling is back as Luke, another dropout living dangerously. He works in a traveling circus, riding his motorbike in scary stunts. He has a panache and a reputation that goes with his tattoos and the cigarette that droops from his mouth. The circus comes to Schenectady, where it has been before, and Gosling re-acquaints himself with a young woman named Romina (Eva Mendes). A while later he is back in that place beyond the pines and Romina has had a baby—his, though by now she is living with another man. Luke is moved more than he understands. He quits the circus and takes a meager job in the town repairing cars. He wants more money for the son than he earns. So his skill with a motorbike is turned to another source of income, small-bank robberies. These are not just terrifying on screen; they frighten the wits out of Luke.

Fear is a big subject in the film. A rookie cop, the son of a judge, chases Luke after one robbery. Very afraid, he traps him in a house, and in a swift but precise exchange he shoots Luke, only to be shot himself when the injured robber fires back. The cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), allows himself to be acclaimed as a hero, which starts him off on an important career. Until it is “Fifteen Years Later.”

Illustration by Rich Kelly

 That title seems like an awkward bump for a moment—when I saw the film there were gasps in the audience at the shift. But it soon sinks in that the bump is organic, for this is a film about time and fathers and sons, as well as fear, compromise, hard luck lives, and the inexorable force of class, and whether or not anyone can ever get out of a place like Schenectady. It’s hard to think of another director working in America today who derives so much from the details of class and locality, or who is as interested in the trapped lives that seldom get into our movies. But in both this film and Blue Valentine, Gosling is a reject of the system who is sometimes overwhelmed by his inarticulate passion and anger. He loves his bike, his son, and Romina, but he still can’t cope. He resembles the ill-fated heroes in Nicholas Ray pictures such as They Live by NightOn Dangerous Ground, and In a Lonely Place.

A lot happens in the second half of The Place Beyond the Pines, and plenty of it has to do with the sons of Luke and Avery, who cross paths in the small city. They are both awkward kids overcome by their problems, but in the end Luke’s boy, Jason, does get out of Schenectady, on his bicycle. Though he never knew his father, he feels the passion for wheels. But Cianfrance looks at all his characters with respect, and with an eye for the unexpected. That doesn’t mean he dotes on them: his fondness made too much of the lovers in Blue Valentine. Or was it the way he urged his actors to live together so that they might seem natural on screen? In this film, I think, he has appreciated a broader canvas in which nearly everyone has weaknesses and a steady difficulty maintaining hope. Consider Romina. As the young woman she is as lovely but as harsh as Eva Mendes, though she is a better actress than Mendes has been before. The man she is living with is African American, decent, kind, and useful to Jason. But Mendes lets her looks go in fifteen years. It is makeup, of course, but it shows a startling lack of vanity in an actress who has usually been cast and photographed for exotic glamour.

It is central to a film such as this that one notices the people and the actors. Cianfrance has a larger plan in mind, but first he wants us to know these characters. That begins with casting and the outstanding work from several familiar faces. On screen Ray Liotta has been nasty from the start, playing a lethal tease called “Ray” in Something Wild (1986). I don’t mean that Liotta is himself nasty—I don’t know and don’t care. But give him the part of a corrupt cop as dangerous as a criminal and he comes to life. Harris Yulin is seventy-five now, and a stage actor, too; but in movies he is one of those people I can never get enough of—remember him in Scarface, as the traitor in Clear and Present Danger, and the lover in Night MovesThose are just three of 119 credits. As the judge here, he sits and listens, but he manages to suggest both the model he has been in Avery’s life and the source of weakness. Then there is Bruce Greenwood, not a known name, though a face you will recognize. He plays an officer in Internal Affairs and he is riveting in every scene he has. Like any working actor, he has done plenty of junk, and I’m sure he knows it—but what he sees here is the chance of a lifetime. He was JFK in Thirteen Days, and Jack Dunphy in Capote. He has 117 credits at the age of fifty-six, and he has never been better.

That is by no means all. Ben Mendelsohn plays the guy who gives Luke a job, and he leaves you fascinated by the discerning wastrel. Rose Byrne has not quite enough to do as Avery’s wife. The film would be richer if we saw more of their failure together. But then there is Dane DeHaan as Jason. He was one of the patients in “In Treatment,” and here he is twenty-six playing sixteenish. You will not forget him, and you may feel you have hardly seen a bitter-wise teenager as good since James Dean.

Then there are the leads. Bradley Cooper is coming into his own, and he is to be admired for refusing to hide the creepy side of Avery or the weakness that makes his career. He rises to high office finally, but in ways that make us more wary of high officers. Ryan Gosling seems to me, still, an unresolved actor. He can be good-looking and attractive and rather empty, as in The Ides of March. He can be a stone-faced hardass (Drive) or a romantic (The Notebook)He was drab routine in the worthless Gangster Squad. But for Cianfrance, twice now, Gosling has been on the edge of a great character: the American failure (there are millions of them) who has the neediness and the inner life of a wild genius. Can he depend on Cianfrance’s making larger and better parts for him? Or is he likely to become a good-looking charmer? In truth, I don’t think he has or believes in that charm. He is a steadfast outsider, pale, blonde, and handsome, but capable of being Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August or even Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. That inheritance—the De Niro of Mean Streets to Raging Bull—is waiting to be taken up. Having worked with the disenchanted Sean Penn (in Gangster Squad), Gosling knows what not to do. But it is very hard for any worthwhile actor to make a career.

Acting, or performed personality, has always been America’s most reliable raw material in the movies. We enjoy that and note the great ensembles in Ford, Hawks, Sturges, Capra, Altman, Coppola, and many others. But good acting can obscure the need for writing and direction that employ acting with purpose. That purpose is strong in Cianfrance’s new film. I’m not sure that The Place Beyond the Pines is going to flourish at the box office. But if there are better films this year, then we are in luck. If it opened in December it would seem a major event.

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic. He is the author, most recently, of The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).