Derek Cianfrance isn't afraid to shine a light on the darkness that sometimes lurks under the surface of family and marital life. In his 2010 film debut "Blue Valentine," the writer-director presented a stark portrait of a young couple whose relationship devolves from passionate love to passionate hatred over the course of six years.
But for those who remember that film's sexually frank focus and air of tragic inevitability, Mr. Cianfrance's more hopeful follow-up, "The Place Beyond the Pines," may come as a surprise.
"Blue Valentine" included both a graphic oral sex scene and another scene that straddled the line between bad sex and rape. That explosive combination left its distributor, the Weinstein Company, battling against an NC-17 rating — a battle it milked for maximum advantage in both the awards races and at the box office.
Mr. Cianfrance is one who takes his time. "Valentine" took him 12 years to produce, as he worked his way through 66 screenplay drafts — and a constant struggle to find viable stars who weren't afraid of the material. The result was an art-house hit that earned nearly $10 million and garnered an Oscar nomination for its female lead, Michelle Williams.
It is thus somewhat surprising that "The Place Beyond the Pines" comes out this weekend after a mere two-year production process. Mr. Cianfrance fills the same roles on "Pines" as he did on "Valentine," directing and co-writing (this time with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder). But here he tells a story with far more sweep than his debut film — of a criminal, the cop who shoots and kills him and their teenage sons who have to deal with the consequences 15 years later.
And this time out the filmmaker offers a profound message of hope and redemption.
"I had a big choice to make at the end of 'Pines' — what's gonna happen with the gun at the end of the movie?" says Mr. Cianfrance. "It could be a story of vengeance, which would be satisfying. Or suicide and hopelessness. Or forgiveness. As a father, I think on what I put out there, and what I wanted to put into the world was forgiveness, not hopelessness."
Mr. Cianfrance was born in Colorado in 1974, and picked up a movie camera for the first time at age 13. He had already developed the unusual habit of taking candid photos of his turbulent family's moments of conflict during his earlier childhood. After spending his teen years making short films, he formally trained at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Those family conflicts have been an obvious inspiration for his work, leading to an attempted first feature, "Brother Tied," about fighting brothers which drew attention at the Sundance Film Festival but never saw release. He then began the lengthy process of making "Blue Valentine," shooting documentaries for MTV and other cable networks to pay the bills until he could finish his dream project, which ignited a bidding war after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010.
"Pines" stars Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stuntman who's lured into being the getaway driver for a series of bank robberies when he needs to come up with money to care for his newborn son. Bradley Cooper is the policeman who kills him and then wrestles with guilt.
The film doesn't shy away from mature subject matter, but as its storyline jumps 15 years into the future to show how these two men's sons wrestle with the sins of their fathers and whether to forgive and forget, "Pines" takes on a positive and, in some ways, biblical force.
"I grew up Catholic, and the film has a general ethos of forgiveness," Mr. Cianfrance explains. "I didn't intentionally make a biblical film, but in watching it 'Pines' feels biblical, and I think that came out through osmosis. I'm not really a message filmmaker, but I work from a deeply personal place."My wife was pregnant with our second son, so I was thinking of everything I was born with and would pass on to my child and wanting him to come into the world clean and make his own path in the world without thinking of my decisions," he continues. "It was also based in the idea of tribes in America, the making of your own tribe. And what happens when tribes collide or you want to break from your tribe and it collides with your tribe? Can you make it go away? Does that violence ever subside?"
As his own experiences as a husband and father are helping him to mellow in order to avoid the mistakes of his parents (who divorced when he was 20), Mr. Cianfrance is also finding that he is looking at the broader impact his work and their imagery have on the world. Even though "Pines" is a film rooted in a crime story and has a pair of exciting crime and chase scenes, it is also a movie in which only a minimum of gunshots are fired — and every one of those has a powerful consequence.
"I'm not a huge fan of the proliferation of guns in movies, and I'm tired of them," Mr. Cianfrance says. "I can't even watch the NFL with my kids without switching it off from violence everywhere in ads for shows and movies. I wanted to approach violence in a way that's not fetishizing it. You want it to show violence as it affects your real life."