The title may make it sound like a high-minded ethereal exercise, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is actually an ambitious movie that is one part cautionary tale and one part complex family drama. The film reunites its star Ryan Gosling with director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance who previously worked together on “Blue Valentine”. This is certainly a different kind of movie with many more layers and a much broader vision. That doesn’t always equal a better movie but in this case Cianfrance definitely takes a step up and his new film almost reaches the lofty heights it aims for.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” can basically be broken down into three parts. First we meet a motorcycle stunt performer named Luke Glanton (Gosling). He’s a tattooed, chain-smoking loner who goes town to town with a traveling carnival. During an annual stop in upstate New York Luke learns he has fathered a child with a local waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes). He decides to quit the carnival and stick around hoping to take care of son, but with no money or job that becomes difficult. He strikes up a friendship with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) a local mechanic with an affection for robbing banks. A few bad choices later and Luke finds himself in a pretty tough spot.
Luke’s story connects to that of a young local police officer named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The second part of the film focuses on Avery after he is injured in the line of duty. He struggles with the actions that led to his injury and the “hero” tag that he has been given. As he recovers he fights to stay connected to his wife and young son. He also faces a battle between his moral conscious and some shady goings-on by his friends on the police force.
The third part of the film jumps ahead 15 years but to tell anything else about it would be doing a disservice to the viewer. Suffice it to say this is a film about two men, two families, two fathers, and two sons whose lives are veritably intertwined. The three segments each have their own unique tone and feel to them yet the connection between all three is always there. This was a bold approach to storytelling and I certainly can appreciate Cianfrance’s ambition. But the risk would only work if all three segments were equally good and unfortunately that’s not the case.
My favorite of the three “chapters” (for lack of a better word) was the first one which focused on Gosling’s character. This was a good surprise for me because unlike many people I’m not sold on him as an actor. We get a lot of his normal routine here – brooding, emotionless stares, and a lot of mumbling. But it actually fits a lot better with this character and Gosling does throw in a few variations that we rarely get from him. The story is compelling and features a gritty realism. I loved Mendelsohn here and Mendes is very good as well.
I also liked the second act which focused on Bradley Cooper’s character. It’s drastically different but deeply connected to what we’ve already seen. The contrasts in the lives of these two men are jarring yet there are similarities which I will let you sort out for yourselves. It’s during this chapter that the film does begin to slow down a bit but it still maintains a strong dramatic pull. But the final act tries to be a little too clever and the contrivances that are employed are all too obvious. There are parts of the final third that do work but as a whole the story becomes less interesting and it’s here that I began to feel the trudge of the movie’s 140 minute running time.
So what do I make of “The Place Beyond the Pines”? Ultimately it was a better movie than I anticipated but not one that fully meets its own high expectations. The camerawork is fantastic and the performances are solid across the board. Also, I never begrudge a filmmaker from making bold choices, but I don’t feel Cianfrance quite knew when to pull back the reins. In the end the film felt a little too cocky and indulgent for its own good. While that brought the movie down a bit it certainly didn’t undo the good qualities that we see particularly in the first two acts.