Director Derek Cianfrance, who helmed the devastatingly brilliant Blue Valentine, raises his ambitions for The Place Beyond the Pines, a gripping film experiment that works on every level.
Cianfrance makes a lot of unconventional moves this time out. There are many stories in this movie, with a strong emphasis on many characters. Cianfrance finds a way to focus on these characters in an efficient way that doesn’t have viewers jumping from one story to another from scene to scene. The stories progress chronologically over a period of about 16 years, with some characters fading away as others take over. The result is long, but never boring.
The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a stunt-motorcycle driver, as he leaves his trailer and heads for his evening gig. The shot establishes that although Luke is a semi-celebrity on the carnival circuit, he’s undeniably lonely and isolated.
Luke gets some surprising news from ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), and his life trajectory takes a drastic shift. He moves from doing stunts to robbing banks, a decision that will bring him face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a terrible haircut. Avery finds himself thrust into upstate New York law enforcement with the big boys, which includes being around a lot of corruption. (Ray Liotta is one of the cops, so there you go. Bad stuff always goes down when Liotta is in the mix.)
Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, and the film ultimately deals with their stories when the kids hit the age of 17. AJ (Emory Cohen) is Avery’s son, a neglected product of divorce who has a marble-mouth, a taste for drugs and a violent temper. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is Luke’s son, a mild-mannered loner who knows little about his father and who gets high a lot. The two sons cross paths and become friends, and the film becomes a startling look at the results of bad fathering.
The movie is always good, but it is perhaps at its best when Gosling occupies the story. Gosling got off to bad start this year with his turn in the lousy Gangster Squad, but his performance here puts him back on track. Luke has similarities to the dark, brooding Driver from Drive (and like Driver, Luke is prone to violent outbursts). Gosling brings out sensitivity in Luke that makes him all the more tragic when his crime spree spirals out of control.
Cooper, recently Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, is Gosling’s equal in this film, making Avery virtuous at first, but prone to devious leanings. Avery’s ambitions lead to broken marriages and a miserable kid, canceling out any heroic deeds from years before. His work here is just as strong as his work in Playbook.
As for Cohen and DeHaan, they provide Pines with an absorbing final act. It’s usually a good thing when you get a movie with a couple of memorable characters in it. Well, this film has a whole cast’s worth of memorable characters, and all of the actors get the screen time they deserve.
Mendes heads the supporting cast with an authority that she has never shown before. She’s nothing short of terrific, and it’s a performance that should open some new doors for the veteran actress. The ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (so good in Killing Them Softly) gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Robin, Luke’s only true friend and confidant. Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast with powerful work.
Cianfrance has made a beautiful movie, from the lush camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, to the haunting, excellent piano based soundtrack by Mike Patton (yes, THAT Mike Patton, from Faith No More). The film has something beautiful to boast in every frame. It’s a true work of art.
It’s also good for a few doses of adrenaline, something that was absent from the somber Blue Valentine. The bank robberies and subsequent chases are uncomfortable, fast and tense. Luke’s showdown with Avery after a memorable foot chase is a great movie moment.
Anybody thinking The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie about a dude on a motorcycle robbing banks (as commercials have implied) will be in for a big surprise. It’s a sprawling work about the sins of the father—and it’s one of the year’s best films so far.
The Place Beyond the Pines is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6588; www.camelottheatres.com); and the Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730; www.thepalme.com).