Because of scheduling issues I did not review "The Place Beyond the Pines" for the Star Tribune last Friday. The film made a strong impression on me nonetheless, and I wanted to share my thoughts.
If “The Place Beyond the Pines” had been published rather than filmed, it would have been a trio of linked novellas, sharing characters, settings and themes, but each coherent and complete. Taken together it’s an audacious, sprawling, emotionally rich story of crime and cops, ambition and passion, fathers and sons. Each significant character has his own drama, each gets attention in turn. Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance is attracted to stories of men not fully in control of themselves; his last film was the fatalistic Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams love story “Blue Valentine.” At times it feels like his headlong films have lost the map. That’s because Cianfrance has aspirations that upend Hollywood formulas, a determination to forge new narrative forms for our movies. Like the opening scene’s Cage of Death, a steel sphere where circus motorbike daredevils race at breakneck speeds, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a thrilling ride.
The film starts near full throttle. Gosling plays Luke, a traveling carnival stunt rider who wows the rubes by whizzing in circles, going nowhere. From his pumped physique to the tattoos wallpapering his skin to the studious cool with which he hands out after-show autographs (in childish block printing) he’s a catalog of macho clichés. Yet there’s an undeniable sensitivity imprisoned behind his eyes. A man on a motorcycle ought to be freewheeling. Luke is trapped.
Luke’s jolted onto a new path when he learns that Romina (Eva Mendez), a half-forgotten one night stand from upstate New York, has his year-old son. He impulsively tries to insert himself into their lives, quitting the circus even though Romina already has a good and steady man. Luke watches the child’s baptism from a distant pew in a shattering scene that shows how eerily compelling sad and tender silence can be. Determined to have a place in his son’s life, Luke veers impetuously from crime-funded presents to rash violence. Though he postures as a man’s man, he has no idea how to be one. He means well but acts destructively. Gosling’s character is almost a sequel to the ultracool getaway wheelman he played in 2011’s “Drive,” though he carries an additional dimension of pained regret at the damage he can’t help causing.
Bradley Cooper enters the story, then commandeers it, as Avery, a smart rookie cop whose chance encounter with Gosling changes both their lives forever. As he proved in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Cooper can draw us into challenging, multifaceted characters. His smalltown lawman is a veritable layer cake of job stress, Oedipal resentments, nobility and subterfuge. Where Luke has one over-arching goal, to be a father, Avery wants to stand up to his smug father. The old man (played by that master of condescension Harris Yulin) is an important figure in New York, the one who advises Avery how to maneuver his way through a life-and-death faceoff with an untrustworthy colleague (Ray Liotta). Cooper needs his father’s advice to navigate the legal and moral minefield, and he resents needing it.
The plot twists again in the final chapter, focused on two drug-abusing high school students, one from each end of the socioeconomic spectrum, both effectively abandoned by their fathers. They recognize a type of pain in each other, try to blot it out with weed and oxycontin, and create a dangerously abusive relationship of their own. Each jarring shift of perspective and chronology makes you a little dizzy, but it’s not disjointed. The pieces lock together with undeniable logic. Cianfrance catches and maintains a brooding, ominous atmosphere that unites all the elements. He also gets breathtaking work from his actors, with star turns even from his supporting players. Liotta, who had played a thousand dirty cops, makes the role feel fresh and new and full of coiled threat. Ben Mendelsohn, as a fidgeting, slack-jawed mechanic who befriends Gosling, offers a performance rich enough to carry a whole separate movie. If Cianfrance makes it. I’ll be first in line.
- Colin Covert