Ryan Gosling-Eva Mendes
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima - Courtesy of Focus Features

Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance likes to paint on a big canvas. His last film, Blue Valentine, chronicled the two extremes of a relationship, from its first spark to its bitter demise. In The Place Beyond the Pines he charts the destinies of fathers and sons, and the people closest to them. It’s ambitious and unusual, to say the least, but I think it works because it’s honest. What some people might write off as a series of coincidences he embraces fully, giving each plot turn credence as well as resonance.

Describing the film without giving too much away is tricky. Ryan Gosling (who also starred in Blue Valentine) plays a daredevil motorcycle rider who works for a traveling carnival. While stopping in Schenectady, New York, he looks up a woman he dallied with his last time through town (Eva Mendes) and discovers that the baby she’s raising is his. Without hesitation he quits the carnival and determines to take responsibility for the child, despite Mendes’ protests. A mercurial man, he goes to extremes to find a meaningful way to support his family-once-removed. At some point he crosses paths with Schenectady cop Bradley Cooper, who has a wife and an infant son of his own; their fateful encounter alters the course of their lives and their families’ future.

Bradley Cooper-Place Beyond the Pines-325
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima - Courtesy of Focus Features

Cianfrance, who collaborated on the screenplay with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, allows his saga to unfold as a linear narrative: there’s no hopping back and forth in time. That’s deliberate and meaningful, as each decision his characters make has consequences that play out in scenes to follow.

The film poses the question: are we prisoners of our destiny or can we break patterns and make our own way in the world? The answer isn’t clear-cut, and that’s what makes The Place Beyond the Pines so consistently compelling. Its side stories may not seem directly connected to the through-line, but they are, in ways we can’t always recognize immediately. Cianfrance has cast his film extremely well, offering good parts not only to his talented (and deeply committed) stars but to veterans Ray Liotta and Harris Yulin, solid supporting actors like Ben Mendelsohn and Bruce Greenwood, and newcomers Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan. He also makes exceptional use of his distinctive upstate New York location, weaving it into the fabric of his film. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is striking at every turn, spontaneous and hand-held in some scenes, more formal as the occasion demands. What’s more, the film amply justifies its two-hour-plus running time; you wouldn’t want to see Cianfrance’s ideas shortchanged.

The Place Beyond the Pines is the kind of original, provocative film that gives one hope. It tells us that some movie stars still respond to strong material; by lending their marquee clout to a smaller production, they help subsidize this kind of independent filmmaking. Thank goodness for that.

By the way, the film’s title derives from the Mohawk Indian name for Schenectady!