Dramatic integrity and blaring emotional intensity were among the overt aspects of Derek Cianfrance’s brutally honest previous film, Blue Valentine. It’s one of my favorite films from 2010. Like Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines operates on both a macro and micro level, where a select number of characters serve as proxies for a larger social circumstance. Blue Valentine circumvented this aspect to a degree, largely by instilling a measure of characterization to its central leads. But with The Place Beyond the Pines, characters are broadly drawn. Cianfrance opts to let them roam the narrative terrain in their plights of circumstance. It provides the film with a great deal of dramatic intensity, though Cianfrance’s handle on the material can be sporadically masterful yet at other times the director seems overwhelmed by the size of his material.
Cianfrance captures the picture’s central feel early with a singular static shot of stunt motorcyclists trapped in a sphere. Three men swirling within an inch of themselves with the prospects of disaster high, the image is Cianfrance’s coup d’état - a masterful visual representation of the dark terrain ahead. As the picture forges on, thematic intent takes precedence, with Cianfrance probing the anxieties of etching a masculine identity. It was something of thematic importance in Blue Valentine, but the absent feminine perspective to The Place Beyond the Pines gives the material something of a monotonous feel toward the middle of its runtime. The ambition is certainly there, with Cianfrance attempting to reconcile narrative threads in the smoothest manner possible. A particularly grating leap in time suggests an understanding of how difficult a project of generational conflict can be.
The Place Beyond the Pines may drip in American sentiment with its hyper-masculine probing, passionate reverence for lower and middle class living, and overt imagery of the American flag, but Cianfrance’s thematic intent fall in line with the work of Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski. From doppelgangers to the studious ruminations on the consequences of judgment and law, there are certain thematic and conceptual consistencies that run through Kieslowski’s oeuvre and The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance is no Kieslowski however, with Cianfrance’s visual and audio flares registering as both pompous and arbitrary. The perpetual deployment of church bells and grim musical cues register as particularly offensive in the film’s third act. Though the ambition and scope of The Place Beyond the Pines keeps the film in perpetual movement, it rides like lightening though never quite provoking thunderous evocation.