Having released bruising marital drama Blue Valentine two years ago, Derek Cianfrance weaves something equally tender and raw with The Place Beyond the Pines, which sees him turn his focus to fathers and sons. Telling three consecutive stories - spearheaded by Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan respectively - across a 15-year timeline, Pines is a nuanced crime epic with a Godfather-like focus on families and their vicious cycles.
In a performance that recalls his brutish vulnerability in Cianfrance's last film, Gosling plays motorcycle stunt driver Luke, whose priorities shift after a former fling, Romina (Eva Mendes) reveals that she has had his son. She's shacked up already and wants nothing to do with Luke, who's unable to bear watching another man raise his child (one early sequence in which he watches his baptism from afar might be the best work Gosling has ever done). "I wasn't around my dad; look at the way I turned out," he argues, significantly.
Determined to provide for his family, Luke joins forces with an auto shop owner (Ben Mendelsohn) and begins robbing banks. Their initial heist is flawless; brutal and efficient, but where his partner wants to call it a day Luke refuses, blinded by the new trust his money has brought out in Romina. He gets sloppy, the robberies get risky, and soon he's crossing paths with Cooper's go-getting young cop Avery, in an encounter that signals the film's first gear shift.
Years later, Luke and Avery's sons (DeHaan and Emory Cohen) meet, and the consequences of everything that's come before emerge. If this final segment lacks some of the magnetic pull of the others, it's easy to forgive once DeHaan gets to work. Anyone who saw his breakthrough turn on HBO's In Treatment will recognise some of the same wounded charisma here, and he's an inspired choice as Gosling's son.
Setting aside three genuinely career-best performances, it's Cianfrance's assured direction that makes Pines so intoxicating. From the first bravura extended tracking shot following Gosling through a carnival, to the final image of a son echoing his father in ways he doesn't yet understand, this is simply a phenomenal talent at the top of his game.
The Place Beyond the Pines is one of the most ambitious and accomplished films of the year, a sweeping, searing family drama that packs a devastating emotional punch.