Derek Cianfrance's The Place beyond the Pines is a Douglas Sirk movie for the 21st Century. It exudes melodramatic grandeur, a sweet, delirious pompousness that enthralls you without being true and without being false. Everything in it is too much: the over-tattooed body of Ryan Gosling, the sublimation of all the female characters, the bank robberies done in a sort of Billy-Idol flourish, the burnished sunsets, the sad teenaged wasteland that comprises the movie's coda. You are hypnotized by Cianfrance's dedication to what he is trying to pull off. Like Sirk's masterworks Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, Place sprawls across time-zones and feelings, the narrative pulling itself forward while sinking back into emotions and situations that never really feel authentic, but still somehow resonate, so charged up for your viewing pleasure that you feel obligated, even a little flattered, that the movie is working so hard to enchant/overwhelm you.
"Melodrama" is often maligned, seen as a cheap way to exaggerate in order to manipulate. But exaggeration in Cianfrance's world heightens and entertains, just like in Sirk's stiff, over-the-top universes of feeling. Sometimes you just want things to be exaggerated and to feel emotions that aren't quite "real," but still come across as necessary, vital. There are scenes in Place that are beautifully underplayed yet still overt -- as in one of the penultimate ones, pictured above, when Gosling, playing a dare-devil motorcyclist who wants to give up dare-devil-motorcycling in order to be the father and husband he dreams he can be, has an impromptu photo session with his girlfriend and baby son. Eva Mendes is the girlfriend, and she really does try hard to overcome the underwritten part, to the point that you are totally with her. In this scene, outside an ice-cream stand, she and Gosling and their baby ask a stranger to take their picture. They stand in front of his motorcycle, and they seem happy/sad/wistful/anxious, all the emotions you think they should be feeling, and everything is so summed up in the scene you don't have anywhere to go but with it. The symbolism of Gosling holding his hand over Mendes' eyes, his hands and arms covered in those aforementioned tattoos, is so over-the-top that it becomes easy to access, sweet and dumb and funny, the way life can be sometimes when cameras aren't rolling. And the baby's face, staring off in the future, and the stranger asking, "Why is the lady crying?"
Scenes like that happen all over the Place. They could be lampooned pretty easily, and yet somehow Cianfrance invests enough artistry and imagination that they turn toward epic instead of icky. By the end of the movie you truly feel something that big melodramatic Technicolor movies used to make you feel: surrounded by artifice and yet also enraptured by it.