In The Place Beyond the Pines, Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motor bike-riding carny who discovers that a woman named Romina (Eva Mendes) had a baby by him after a one-night stand when he last passed through town. Even though Romina has a man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali) in her life, Luke feels entitled to the family he believes is rightfully his. When his new pal Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) suggests using those motor bike skills for high-speed bank robbery, Luke’s family-man dreams are all the motivation he needs to break the law.
This puts Luke on the radar of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a politician’s son-turned-police officer, working within a department where crooked cops like Deluca (Ray Liotta) run the show. As Luke and Avery try to wade through their respective moral quagmires, the effects of their choices won’t just be felt in their lives – it will create a legacy that will one day be inherited by their sons.
This film is the latest project from Derek Cianfrance, whose unflinching (and unnervingly insightful) look into romantic relationships made Blue Valentine one of the most acclaimed (and haunting) indie dramas of the last few years. With Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance attempts something much more ambitious, but no less insightful: creating a sweepingly epic indie tale that focuses on the rippling effects of violence and family bonds, in a multi-chaptered onscreen narrative. The experiment is not a perfect success, but the unique framework of the story and the talent of the filmmaker still result in an overall good film.
Like with Blue Valentine, Cianfrance both wrote and directed Place Beyond the Pines – with help on the script front from Ben Coccio and Darius Marde. The narrative is unique in that it is, as stated, a multi-chaptered piece, which slides from character to character at moments of crossing paths, before launching into a third act that takes us on a pretty big leap forward in time. While the transitions are handled relatively smoothly, this form of plot progression will undoubtedly be disorienting for some viewers – as will the division of screen time. Those hoping to see a Bradley Cooper or Ryan Gosling movie may come away feeling cheated by how fractional each star’s time onscreen actually is.
Yet, in each new chapter of the tale, Cianfrance manages to craft a particularly intense, intimate and interesting drama, populated by intriguing characters. Scene-for-scene, Place Beyond the Pines plunges us into fully-formed and immersive worlds of blue-collar and white-collar life on both sides of the law – as well as the modern-day high school jungle.
Even in the quiet and still shots that constitute many of the film’s scenes, there is an ever-present subtext of danger and hopelessness hanging over the characters roaming this Americana wasteland. With his gritty cinematography and eye for scene composition, Cianfrance once again evidences his talent for piercing the surface and exposing the ugly realities of the values we live by and ideals we strive toward. The final segment, however, is where the movie takes a hit, thanks to overly-contrived plotting and a slow build to what is a thrilling, but truncated, ending. A feel good film with cathartic payoff, this is not.
The cast is balanced out in terms of strong and weak players. Gosling is captivating as Luke, oscillating to between unhinged thug and tender family man, effortlessly. Luke is probably the most intriguing character in the story, and Gosling certainly makes him worthy of such attention. Mendes is not as strong as Romina, playing a character whose only task is walking around looking like the weariest woman in the world. It’s not at all a breakout dramatic performance for Mendes (especially when compared to her cast mates), but she’s passable enough to be offered similar roles in the future. Meanwhile, skilled character actors like Ben Mendelsohn (Dark Knight Rises) and Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) breathe genuine life into what are otherwise tangential characters in Luke’s chapter of the story.
Less interesting is Avery, the character played by Bradley Cooper. Cooper is effective in the role, but in this division of labor between two of the biggest leading men on the planet, Gosling is the stronger of the two and the time spent with Avery often feels like it comes at the expense of time that could’ve been spent with Luke. Thankfully, Avery’s chapter has a strong support team, including iconic character actor Harris Yulin, Blue Bloods star Robert Clohessy, Bruce Greenwood, and especially Ray Liotta and Rose Byrne, who may have the most tense dinner table conversation scene this year. These side characters help prop up the weaknesses in Cooper’s character (not his performance, his character), making Avery’s chapter better than it otherwise would’ve been.
The final segment pits rising young star Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) against emerging actor Emory Cohen (Smash) in a storyline which is, as stated, somewhat hard to take in its grand contrivances – even while carrying the thematic threads of the story as effectively as any other chapter. DeHaan is a captivating young talent, and carries his section exceedingly well – right up until the nail-biting climax. Cohen, on the other hand, is almost too successful playing the incredibly unlikable character of “AJ,” a swagger-filled, rap-spitting, drug-popping, New York teen stranded in the doldrums of upstate NY suburbia. While written as a complexly-layered rogue, Cohen’s alpha-male interpretation of AJ makes it hard to be sympathetic towards the vile boy – which sort of throws-off what the climatic moment of the film is trying to accomplish.
In the end, Place Beyond the Pines manages to illustrate the ravages of family and legacy almost as effectively as Blue Valentine did the ravages of romantic connection. However, the structure of the narrative (while ambitious), combined with an uneven cast of stronger/weaker characters, results in a film that ultimately gets in its own way at the most crucial moments in the story. It’s still a wonderfully crafted work by a talented Americana director – but the movie is likely destined to be remembered more for its all-star cast than its subject matter.
The Place Beyond the Pines is now playing in limited release. It is 140 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference.