Ambition is a tricky thing for a filmmaker to show. It's something usually encouraged when it results in a remarkable film, but not so much when the work falls short of its intentions, or when the talent doesn't seem to match it. I'm as guilty as anyone of falling into that trap every now and then - I'm only human - but, as a rule, I prefer films that strive to go somewhere else, somewhere other, even if they end up falling by the wayside. It's the case of Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, a genuinely solid and intelligent film that bites off more than it can chew, with the director climbing the next flight of steps upwards after the acclaim received by Blue Valentine, his poignant tale of a dissolving marriage.

     The new film is more ambitious in scale, cast and plot - it comes across occasionally as a chip off the James Gray block - but is also eerily reminding of the ambitions of seventies American cinema, its existentialist tone and gritty, colour-drained suburban setting asking pointed questions about the world we live in, now as much as then. Also, and this is where Mr. Cianfrance may be overegging the pudding, it's also an attempt at a sort of low-key, classicist family saga, replacing Blue Valentine's mangled chronology with a relay narrative in three sequential acts, where the sins of the fathers are visited upon sons who, unwittingly, seem to be following in their parents' footsteps.

     Set in Schenectady, NY - an Indian word that means "the place beyond the pines" - the film has a seed of a plot, planted in the first third and slowly growing like a tree from there: carny biker Luke (Ryan Gosling) finds he has a baby son he wasn't aware of, settles in town and takes a sideline as a bank robber to provide for him, even though the mother (Eva Mendes) has a perfectly fine family life with a boyfriend (Mahershala Ali). That decision sets the ball rolling towards a fateful meeting between Luke and rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), both of them wanting to pursue their own paths, out of the overbearing shadows of their own fathers, and then into the casual meeting, years later, of their now-teenage sons (Dane de Haan and Emory Cohen).

     Haunting is, in fact, the key word for Mr. Cianfrance's films - there's always a peculiar mood in them, between the downbeat and the hopeful, a cautious, maybe over-cautious optimism, underlined here by the gritty, unself-conscious camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, and by the tentative, bewildered way nearly every single character tries to articulate what it is they want, need and desire. For all that, the ambition of The Place Beyond the Pines can't quite be pulled off by the film's leisurely running time, the jerking rhythms and the occasionally predictable plot construction; the film's narrative and visual rhymes throughout can be too obvious without necessarily losing their elegance, and it all fits together so neatly it becomes awkward, more of a screenwriter's conceit than an organic whole. But there's no denying there's guts and emotion in The Place Beyond the Pines, nor that Derek Cianfrance is one of the very best young contemporary American filmmakers. Even when you can't quite pull it off, being ambitious doesn't have to be that bad a thing.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane de Haan, Emory Cohen, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Mr. Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder, from a story by Mr. Cianfrance and Mr. Coccio
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt (colour, widescreen)
Music: Mike Patton
Designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costumes: Erin Benach
Editors: Jim Helton, Ron Patane
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky (Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Electric City Entertainment in association with Verisimilitude)
USA, 2012, 140 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, September 10th 2013


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