The Place Beyond the Pines stars both Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper — you spoil us, ambassador! — and is a generational feud film about fathers and sons and legacy. Can anyone be born clean? How do past events reverberate? How might one act of violence play out, years later? It is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance who made Blue Valentine, a remarkably raw and claustrophobic film about a marriage going down the tubes, also starring Ryan Gosling, but with Michelle Williams, and although this is a more familiar genre, it is still blissfully gripping. Certainly, I was gripped, blissfully, which was nice, as I haven’t been held in such a way for a long, long time, although I couldn’t tell you why. I’m up for a blissful grip at any time, just so you know.
But we have a problem, you and I. This is one of those films you should see without knowing anything about it. The more you know, the less it will surprise and engage. Indeed, experts say having advance know-ledge of any of the narrative twists, turns and collisions will reduce your enjoyment by 37 per cent, on average. (Particularly susceptible people may have their enjoyment reduced by as much as 72 per cent.) I was minded to just say ‘go see it’ and leave it at that, leave the rest of the page blank, but didn’t dare put this idea to my boss, Liz, because she’d accuse me of shirking, even though I work so hard I sometimes miss Loose Women, and I’ve never had the time to carve a radish into a lotus flower, which is my greatest wish. So what follows is as much as I feel I can say and if it strikes you I’m not saying much at all, it’s for your own good, so get over it or, better still, go to the cinema. What more can I do for you? Take you there? Drive the car? Park it up? When I don’t even have time to carve a radish?
The film opens with a long tracking shot of the back of a man — his tattooed torso, specifically — as he swaggers through a travelling funfair. It’s the sort of shot which has its own kind of swagger, and establishes, early on, that you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who knows exactly the film he wants to make. Anyway, this is Luke (Gosling), the fair’s stunt motorcyclist. He has bleached hair, wears ripped T-shirts, and even has a tattoo on his face, near his eye, like a dirty tear. He is approached by a woman (Eva Mendes) who challenges him to remember her. They met a year ago, when he was last in town. ‘Romina,’ he says immediately. He discovers she had a son by him, Jason, and he vows to stick around, even though she has no such expectations and may, in fact, not wish it. Luke grew up fatherless and does not want this for his own child. He feels he has to provide for Romina and the boy, and needs money. But how? I could tell you, but won’t. I will only say the reason Gosling is the most magic actor of the moment is, possibly, because he is the most magic actor of the moment. He has a stillness; the kind of stillness that is always tense. He’s like a caged animal that could pounce at any moment. And his performances are always real and true. He could play a napkin and make it real and true.
And Mr Cooper, the second most magic actor of the moment? He is Avery, a cop. He shouldn’t be a cop, because his father is a judge, and he trained as a lawyer, but he wants to be his own man, so became a cop. He has a wife (Rose Byrne) and, like Luke, an infant son, AJ. His path crosses with Luke’s once, for a moment, but it’s an encounter which leaves Avery with a toxic shame; a toxic shame he buries, but later manifests itself though AJ. The sons are certainly visited upon, sin-wise, and the final act takes up the story when Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) are teenagers, and although this is the weakest act by far, and Cohen looks, distractingly, like a squashed little Elvis, I was desperate to know how it would all pan out.
If Pines sounds like a novel, it’s because it plays like a novel. Pick the narrative to its bones and it could, in fact, be a Jeffrey Archer, only good. Its themes are familiar — guilt; redemption; manliness; those fraternal sins — but Cianfrance’s artistry and the actors’ riveting performances — Cooper can act question marks behind the eyes, hook you in, and may even bring depth. (Do they? I don’t know, I find it hard to recognise depth sometimes.) True the women are tossed aside, as characters, and it’s occasionally overwrought with a final act that definitely suffers in comparison with the preceding two and the whole may not be as grand as it thinks it is but, like I said, I was blissfully gripped. And that hasn’t happened in ages.