After watching Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” it was clear that the writer/director would be one to watch for the future, even if the anti-romance film wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. His follow-up feature, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” reunites Cianfrance with his “Blue Valentine” star Ryan Gosling, and though the movie is hindered by its own set of problems, the multi-generational crime drama makes good on the potential he showcased in his directorial debut. While it’s difficult to talk about the movie without wading knee-high into spoiler territory, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is an impressive piece of American filmmaking that’s every bit as compelling as it is annoyingly flawed.
The movie’s triptych structure is like watching three separate but interconnecting films, and Cianfrance kicks things off with what is easily the best of the bunch as we’re introduced to Luke Glanton (Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver who reconnects with a former one-night stand named Romina (Eva Mendes) at the local fair where he plies his trade. When he learns that Romina has given birth to his son, Luke agrees to quit his nomadic job and stay in town, even though Romina has already moved on with another man. Determined to do his fatherly duties and provide for his son, Luke decides to put his unique skills to use and start robbing banks, placing him on a collision course with rookie policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an honest family man who gave up his promising career as a lawyer to serve on the force. After becoming privy to some dirty cops in the department, however, Avery must decide what’s more important: his integrity or loyalty to his brothers in blue.
Taking place 15 years later, the final act is predictable but nonetheless rewarding as Cianfrance’s story comes full circle to find Luke and Avery’s teenage sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively) become unlikely friends during a chance meeting, ultimately forced to deal with the actions of their fathers. The whole thing is incredibly ambitious, and unfortunately for Cianfrance, he seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. Though there’s not much to each story, everything that happens is necessary to telling the larger narrative, and that’s part of what makes “The Place Beyond the Pines” so frustrating. Cianfrance may be dealing with some familiar themes of fatherhood, consequences and destiny, but it’s such an epic undertaking that it ultimately becomes too much movie for its own good.
Gosling’s segment is the standout, not only because it lays the groundwork for the rest of the film, but because it provides the best balance of drama, action, and even a little comedy thanks to an entertaining turn from Ben Mendelsohn, who’s fast becoming one of the best character actors in Hollywood. The heist scenes are also well shot and add some much-needed energy to a film that moves at a rather leisurely pace, but the biggest reason for its success is Gosling’s magnetic performance. Covered from head to toe in tattoos, the bleach blonde bad boy may be a criminal, but it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch as Luke grapples with Romina to let him be a part of his son’s life and give him the father he never had.
Cooper and DeHaan also deliver solid performances, but their segments are noticeably weaker. As a result, the movie feels a bit lopsided, although the first hour is so engaging (aided by a refreshingly unglamorous turn by Mendes) that it makes up for some of the more unflattering heavy-handedness that Cianfrance resorts to in the latter half. “The Place Beyond the Pines” isn’t perfect, but it’s a movie that demands a lot of respect for not only taking big risks, but the way that it resonates emotionally, because there just aren’t enough films that do that anymore.