American independent movies are regularly compared to Bruce Springsteen songs – so much of the DNA is the same, from blue-collar angst to simmering daddy issues, from passion and heartbreak to petty crime and prison time. At a sprawling 140 minutes, the third feature from ‘Blue Valentine’ director Derek Cianfrance feels like an entire Springsteen LP, an intimate story of smalltown folk played in the soaring major key of epic multi-generational melodrama.
The first act – side one, if you like – is pure old-time rock ’n’ roll, as Ryan Gosling’s born-to-run stunt rider Handsome Luke knocks up good time girl Eva Mendes, and decides to do the right thing by staying in town. The second part is more stadium-friendly, as Bradley Cooper’s wounded cop comes face to face with corruption in his department, in the form of Ray Liotta’s bulldog precinct captain. Finally, it’s time for some earnest introspection – get the acoustic guitars out – as both men’s adolescent sons struggle to overcome their family demons.
As with ‘Blue Valentine’, writer-director Cianfrance opts for a naturalistic tone: the colours are muted, the camerawork unobtrusive and the dialogue straight and honest. His performers are mostly spot-on – as the tousled petrolhead with the faraway eyes, Gosling gets by far the flashiest role (this is going to be a huge hit with the ‘hey girl’ set), but he’s superbly backed by Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn as a crotchety backwoods mechanic. Cooper is less compelling – much of that is down to his slippery, less relatable character – but the only real bum note is struck by young Emory Cohen as his son AJ: with his slicked-back hair and hey-yous-guys accent, Cohen seems to be auditioning for a stage-school production of ‘The Karate Kid’.
But that odd performance and a handful of minor pacing issues aside, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is an enormously satisfying film: carefully observed and consistently compelling, it feels like an instant American classic, if a minor one. Cianfrance’s conclusions may tend towards the obvious – crime doesn’t pay, cops can be crooks, parents fuck you up – but there’s nothing wrong with an old song, so long as it’s well sung. Just ask The Boss.