Stars: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Anthony Pizza, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Craig Van Hook, Mahershala Ali, Olga Merediz, Ben Mendelsohn | Written and Directed by Derek Cianfrance
The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious tale of scope and sequence. It embodies the impact of heritage and the lingering effects of our actions. Director Derek Cianfrance brings the same unrelenting realism to the stark relationships of this film as he did with his last project Blue Valentine. Both films share a sense of moral ambiguity where no choice is a forgone conclusion. The triptych narrative unfolds like a novel coming to life. Every act is distinctly different from the next as it follows a particular set of unique characters. Each storyline progresses from where the last one left off as the life of one character bleeds into the life of the next. Themes are effectually handled and the points certainly come across—sometimes too bluntly. Much of the third act feels less like a fitting conclusion and more like an elongated thesis on Cianfrance’s life principles. Still, there is enough craftsmanship at play to make The Place Beyond the Pines a chilling account of misbegotten legacy.
In the film Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt rider who discovers he has fathered a child without his knowledge. Eva Mendes plays Romina, whose one night stand with Luke turns into a life time commitment. Luke wishes to provide for his child so he turns to bank robbing to earn some quick cash. His decision begins a sequence of events that will live on for generations. There are a lot of films that have multiple storylines that connect into one another. Films like Crash or Babel take the large-scale approach as they cover a multitude of storylines all at the same time. The Place Beyond the Pines is slightly different as it focuses on one narrative at a time. This opening act forges a strong foundation for the film to build upon. It brings you into this grimy world of miscreant creatures. Cianfrance has a knack for creating characters with a harsh authenticity. Though the cast is full of some of today’s hottest stars, they fit into these roles with ease. Gosling is great as this brooding scoundrel who mistakes action with intelligent decision making. Luke is not a saint by any means but you are given enough background to sympathize with his plight.
Part of what makes the first act stand above the rest is it’s amped up momentum. The pacing would never be confused with a thrill ride, however the car chases and bank robberies deliver large doses of excitement. Sean Bobbit’s cinematography helps capture these moments with his stunning use of the camera. It is equivalent to watching the best shot version of Cops ever made. The bank robberies were distinctive in their simplicity. There were no grand schemes or years of planning. Just get in and get out as quickly as possible. Real banks were used for these scenes, which added a level of validity to their execution. Common conventions were avoided at all costs. It was as if Cianfrance specifically designed the film to curtail your expectations.
Cianfrance also plays with expectations by abruptly ending the first act to move into story of Avery—a young rookie cop played by Bradley Cooper. This fresh-faced police officer becomes a hero due to being in the right place at the wrong time. His new-found fame brings him into a world of corruption he is not ready for. He soon realizes the line between cop and criminal is not as distinct as he once thought. His story continues the theme of instantaneous choice and the effects it can have. The slight influence from outside forces brings these characters down roads they didn’t expect to travel on. No choice is without repercussions, and righting a wrong does not necessarily fix the problem.
These themes of legacy, father-son connection, and the continued influence of one’s actions lead up to the coup de gras final act. Parallel imagery was elegantly used to relieve poignant moments of the films early stages. The scope of the film goes from zero to hundred with this last bow. Character motivations were glossed over to fit into the narrative’s wishes. More importantly the characters in the final act are far less intriguing than the first two. They feel less like characters and more like gears stuck in this frozen line of destiny. In addition the plotting becomes muddled within this framework. Its hesitation to move forward inhibits any type of momentum from being established.
One consistent commonality within these three acts was the number of quality performances. With Blue Valentine Cianfrance gave his actors a lot of room to perform. Much of the dialog felt ad-libbed as if he just let the actors live in the moment. There is some of that here, and most of the actors are more than capable to work through this heavy lifting. Bradley Cooper has come a long way since he first emerged onto the scene. He breaks free from his movie star persona to encapsulate this rather grounded character. At times the dialogue did become a little too clumsy. The arguments between Gosling and Mendes were lacking an emotional weight, because the words—or lack thereof—took precedence over the performance. For the most part any issues with these performances were minute at best. If you were to walk in cold not knowing any of these actors you may think the people on-screen are genuine average citizens, which is a testament to their dedication to these roles.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a tale on the longing effect of the power of choice. Much of its hypothesis is commendably portrayed through the act of great storytelling. There are far more successes than failures, but the failures come at one of the most inopportune times. Though it starts with a bang, it goes out with a whimpering dud. Nevertheless that initial bang is still strong enough to pull you through till the end, and there is enough in the final turn to save it from being a complete waste. The legacy of The Place Beyond the Pines has yet to be determined, but the early signs put it on the right track.