There is a great shot in The Place Beyond the Pines that comes and goes in a heartbeat. Ray Liotta leans on the side of a car, peering through the driver’s window. He plays a cop — and given this is Liotta, not one of the by the book variety — who is intimidating the man behind the wheel in that distinctively Liottian way: a calm, seething glare that puts the frighteners on without so much as flexing a face muscle.
To establish the scene visually, the obvious inclination for a director would have been to show Liotta’s face in all its rumpled glory then return to the driver: a simple shot reverse shot. Instead Derek Cianfrance, whose previous film was 2010’s Blue Valentine, reveals a sliver of it, a quarter or less, Liotta obscured by the window of the vehicle and a bobbing frame more interested in the space around him. Virtually unseen, the actor’s presence is seismic — and key to the scene’s emotional impact.
There is a shot much later on of a different character trying on a pair of sunglasses. These glasses are of special significance. Cianfrance again sidesteps conventional framing, not showing us the character’s face. Our view is from behind and a bit to the side.
If these visual decisions seem minimal, the cumulative effective is huge (“there are no small decisions in moviemaking,” Sidney Lumet famously wrote). They play a powerful part in feeding our perception of dramatic emphasis, which in this film lies as much in the characters as the space around them.
In Blue Valentine Cianfrance darted back and forth between timelines, capturing the sweetness of a flowering romance then revelling in how it went to hell, a kiss then a punch again and again; the perfect indie date movie crossed with the perfect indie break up movie. Pines is based over numerous years but the story is chronological. Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a daredevil motorcycle rider who discovers he has a baby son. He attempts to integrate into his son’s life and that of the baby’s mother (Eva Mendes), with whom he shared little more than a fling.
The discovery of fatherhood gives Luke’s life purpose, but that purpose comes at a cost. After chatting with new boss Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, adding to his scrapbook of scabby low-time crims ala Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly) Luke decides to provide for his kid by robbing banks. Not a flawless business model, as we inevitably discover, but a pastime more than conducive to Ryan Gosling in lone rider bad ass mode, rejigging the steely panache of his getaway driver in Drive (2011).
After a successful crack the adrenaline starts flowing and, like a drug, he’s hooked. “If you ride like lightning you’re gonna crash like thunder,” warns Robin, Mendelsohn’s husky delivery a testament to his ability to make a line as contrived as that sound natural.
Bradley Cooper plays a substantial role, as do others. The Place Beyond the Pines has been marketed as a Gosling movie but there are four “lead” characters. Revealing the extent of their roles — other than to say this is a film that spans multiple years and moves between insular stories connected to a broader message about fatherhood and responsibility — might jeopardise the twists, which arise not so much from events in the plot but from how they are framed and moved.
Cianfrance has taken the core of melodrama — the construction of a story that dictates the movements of its characters, rather than the other way around — and ran with it to the point at which, somewhere along the line, his narrative became his protagonist, and his protagonist’s “performance” took on the ebb and flow of a beautiful piece of music interrupted by bursts of tension and swift changes in tenor. The guiding path through a jungle of loosely knotted dramatic encounters, from moments of pure action (bank robberies, car chases etc) to tense confrontations and gentle epiphanies, isn’t a person but a purpose: to use the process of storytelling as an organic way of generating the story itself. It’s an audacious strategy, putting such great emphasis on narrative as the one pure, driving force around which everything else — including a stable of powerful performances and complex characters — orbits.
An ongoing feeling of anticipation, both in an immediate (what happens next?) and longer term (where will the story go?) sense beautifully fits Cianfrance’s use of handheld cameras. Visual motifs are deployed with an almost subliminal sense of purpose, as simple as a matching pair of wide shots soaking in a road and a rider, but with the person and the vehicle substituted at different points in the running time.
Thematically the story moves in circular motions. Cianfrance explores connective tissue between male lives linked by blood and circumstance through the prism of a kind of interpersonal, emotional butterfly effect. An action in one life causes a response in another, and the film affords viewers a gorgeously wide and evolving sense of perspective, without that misty feeling that everything is connected or paralleled through some sort of new age Sliding Doors voodoo.
It’s handled so richly, detailed so beautifully, and structured so boldly, The Place Beyond the Pines may well be the most interesting example of narrative cinema to emerge from America this year.
The Place Beyond the Pines’ Australian theatrical release date: May 9, 2013.