Derek Cianfrance’s second film as writer/director The Place Beyond The Pines has the surface feel and many of the trappings of one those mumbly, grainy, low budget indie films about under-privileged characters scraping out an existence on the fringes of small-town America that you might go to see at your friendly local arthouse cinema on a rainy afternoon and then not be able to remember anything about a couple of hours later. It becomes obvious very quickly though that it’s considerably better than that: gripping and full of unexpected swerves in fortune for its main players, well-crafted despite the odd bit of authentically shaky camera work, structurally bold, and confident enough to let the viewer make their own decisions about the morally grey areas it explores without having to ham-fistedly signpost an emotional response.
As protagonists Cianfrance gives us two young men, each with a baby boy to provide for, one a motorcycle stunt rider who develops a side-line in holding up banks when the money starts running out and the other an educated and ambitious police officer who finds himself implicated in some highly dodgy perversions of justice. Both men’s stories are fascinating and played out in a naturalistic and often understated manner that minimises tedious establishing scenes and unnecessary subplots, and while we’re clearly meant to draw parallels between them this aspect isn’t laboured…or not until the drawn-out and rather too neat final act of the film anyway, which could have easily been reduced to a five minute coda. The two men’s lives only actually intersect for the briefest of moments, but it’s an absolutely pivotal one and the consequences are shocking and far-reaching.
A lot of the tropes in Pines are well-worn (violent arguments in a small cramped house about a baby’s welfare, a mentor figure living in a shack in the wilds, a corrupt police chief trying to hush up a whistle-blower) but none of them seem forced and the action flows easily and naturally, with a highlight being an exhilarating chase sequence with Ryan Gosling’s chancer Luke desperately manoeuvring his bike through residential streets, backyards and even a cemetery in an effort to evade capture after a botched raid. And while the look and subject matter of the film are familiar there’s something about the tone of it that’s feels original, with the haunting, elegiac music signalling that Cianfrance is aiming for something much more ambitious and epic than a kitchen sink melodrama. He nearly gets there too. Pines could certainly do with some heavy editing towards the end but for the first hour and a half or so you definitely feel like you’re watching something a bit special.