Proving that he was no one hit wonder, Derek Cianfrance follows up “Blue Valentine” with a stunning slow-burn epic about fathers and sons and how one mistake can having a rippling effect that taints the lives of everyone it touches. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is an ambitious film and it has every opportunity to slip into insufferable melodrama. But Cianfrance and his brilliant ensemble remain in perfect control as the story hurls forward. Don’t worry guys. They’ve got this.
Cianfrance turns chronological storytelling on its ear by trisecting the film, shifting focus from Gosling to Cooper to the resulting teenagers whose fates were set in motion in the same moment. We start in late-nineties Schenectady with Handsome Luke (Gosling), a non-ironically nicknamed motorcycle stunt driver in a travelling carnival, who runs into Romina, a one-night-stand (Eva Mendes) from his last visit. As he escorts her home, they have an awkward conversation in which Romina reveals that she has a man. She just wanted to see Luke one more time.
Curiosity piqued, Luke returns to her house the next day only to come face to face with a baby just old and blonde enough to be his. Suddenly struck with a sense of responsibility, Luke decides he must stick around and provide for the child, even though Romina doesn’t need or want him to. He takes her resistance as a challenge and sets off to find gainful employment. But “gainful employment” means something different to a carnie stunt driver (namely crimes). Under the tutelage of a mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke successfully knocks off a couple of banks before getting increasingly adrenaline-drunk and sloppy. This leads to a run-in with rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper) that changes everything.
In Avery’s narrative, he struggles to find the right side of accountability to the detriment of his marriage and career. And then the story jumps fifteen years to present-day when Avery and Luke’s sons have a chance meeting of Shakespearean proportions, and strike up a friendship far more significant and volatile than either of them realize. Avery Jr. (A.J.) buries his identity crisis under a veneer of Guidoism. Meanwhile, Luke’s son, Jason can’t stop obsessing about his origins despite a healthy home life.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved the crap out of this movie. Cianfrance has crafted a gripping meditation on paternal identity and fuzzy morality. And he cast it perfectly. I’ll be damned if Ryan Gosling isn’t the most fascinating actor working today. Though there are undeniable similarities between “Pine’s” Handsome Luke and the Driver in “Drive”, it’s less typecasting and more a chance for Gosling to expound on a very complex character study. At this point in his career, it seems Gosling is utterly incapable of making poor choices.
Bradley Cooper isn’t doing too shabby himself. In “Pines,” he tops his Academy Award nominated performance in “Silver Lining’s Playbook” and is poised to become the next big exceedingly handsome character actor.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” isn’t the Gosling and Cooper show. Though Gosling’s supernatural magnetism drives the first 1/3 of the film, it does not dominate it. This film is a true ensemble, garnished with flawless performances from the likes of Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta (though Liotta IS type-cast). The kids (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) deftly wield some pretty weighty dramatic battleaxes as the embodiments of parental nightmares. My one criticism is that I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more of Romina, the lone female in this artistic sausage party. Mendes has never been better and her chemistry with (real-life boyfriend) Gosling is incontestable.
Not to sound too much like Stefan, but this movie has everything: A dense script, interesting camera work, a graceful soundtrack, flawless acting, action, violence, romance, some well-timed jokes and a dancing dog. It’s so suspenseful that the dramatic themes sneak in almost unnoticed until you find them punching you in the gut. And then that pain stays with you. It’s as much a cautionary tale as it is a story about inevitability. Though one thing’s for certain: Ladies, never have unprotected sex with a drifter, no matter how much he looks like Ryan Gosling.