The Place Beyond the Pines is ambitious, striving to be an epic generational tale of loss, crime, revenge, but most importantly the intimacy of fatherhood. There’s an enormous amount of story crammed into its 140-minute running time, and for most of that duration the film is an extraordinary example of American dramatic cinema.
Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) dazzles with his second feature-length film, once again working with the versatile Ryan Gosling. The story unfolds over the course of roughly 15 years, with each of its three acts framed around different characters. The first act is centered on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle riding bad boy who reconnects with a former lover (Eva Mendes) to find that he fathered a child with her two years previously. Desperate to support his new family, Luke turns to robbing banks. Gosling plays the part with a manic unpredictability, shifting from charming to menacing at the snap of a finger. The story then shifts focus to Avery (Bradley Cooper), an idealist rookie cop struggling to balance his duty as an officer of the law, and as a husband and father with a young baby boy. It’s at this point in the story where we’re introduced to another supporting character, a crooked cop played by Ray Liotta. Avery suffers through an inner turmoil, struggling to reconcile with his conscience over an on-the-job shooting and corruption within his department.
The last third of the movie takes place 15 years later, and chronicles the exploits of the sons of Luke and Avery, played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, respectively. The performances are stellar all around under Cianfrance’s direction. The drama is intense when it needs to be, and there are many moments of poignancy and illumination. We follow Luke riding his bike along a twisty road between the pines, completely free, and we see his son do the same later in the film. It’s poetic parallels of the relationship between father and son like this that give The Place Beyond the Pines its substance.
The film’s only real misstep comes in its final act. The writer’s hand makes itself apparent in the way that the characters intersect and interact with one another. It feels convenient and forced from a screenwriting perspective, and because of that some of the emotional impact is lost. There’s a borderline melodrama in the way the events progress in the final twenty minutes,which is unfortunate considered how grounded the rest of the story is. The film’s ambition overreaches in the last act, and while it doesn’t fall flat because of this, it certainly loses steam. However, the final images of the film redeem this slight stumble to an extent. The ending is simultaneously optimistic and sorrowful. We can’t be certain what sort of future awaits the character. Will he find redemption, or will he merely follow in the footsteps of his father? It’s ambiguous but affecting, and a fitting close to a story about pride and nurture.
Director Derek Cianfrance has a bright future in the movie business. He denies the Hollywood fairy tale of happily-ever-afters and riding off into the sunset with the girl, instead choosing to make intensely human and intimate films about the interactions between people. The Place Beyond the Pines is not quite the tour de force that Blue Valentine was, but it still resonates emotionally and has something important to say. Don’t miss this one.