The Place Beyond the Pines (***)
Running Time: 140 minutes
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane De Haan, Ray Liotta.
THE Place Beyond the Pines begins as any cinephille would want it to- a brilliant long take in which the camera follows Ryan Gosling through a fun fair, only revealing his face at the very end of the shot. It’s a bravura opening and further adds to the enigmatic screen persona that Gosling has cultivated through his defining screen roles.
This film marks the second outing for Ryan Gosling and director Derek Cianfrance following their 2011 collaboration, Blue Valentine, and its narrative matches the ambition of the film’s opening shot. The Place Beyond the Pines is a multi-perspective, multi-generational crime drama distilled into three autonomous parts. While each of the three stories is quite separate and distinct, there is a thread that runs through them all- that being how the two respective families, the Glanton’s and the Cross’, are affected by each other.
Ryan Gosling plays ‘Handsome’ Luke Glanton, a talented motorcyclist who exists as a drifter, working for a traveling carnival. The first part of the film deals exclusively with his story and how his life changes when he discovers he is a father. Quitting his job with the carnival, he tries to force his way back into the life of the mother of his child, Romina (Eva Mendes). Frustrated by the presence of her new partner and his lack of a means of providing for her and their son, he falls in with another outsider, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) , and the two begin robbing banks- an action that ultimately leads his destiny to be intertwined with that of ambitious rookie cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) , who is also a young father.
The first part of the film concludes with a confrontation between Glanton and Cross, the next part deals with Avery Cross’ continuing story. Cross is physically and mentally haunted by the incident, which threatens to de-rail his promising career. As he is dealing with this, he becomes embroiled in the corrupt goings on within the police department and leads ultimately to a decision that will shape the rest of his life.
The very formal three act structure of the film, which separates the narrative out into three distinct stories, is a bold decision that marks Cianfrance out as a director to watch, but it is one that can only work if all three parts are as strong as each other. The Place Beyond the Pines, however, becomes progressively weaker as the film goes on. The first act is superb with Gosling, Mendes and Mendelsohn in captivating form. The second part of the film is much more introspective and rests firmly on Bradley Cooper’s shoulders and, while not quite as strong as the first, it is illuminated by some engrossing scenes, particularly those between father and son, Harris Yulin and Bradley Cooper.
The film’s main problem is its weak third act, which follows the inevitable meeting of Glanton and Cross’ now grown-up children some 15 years later. The remoteness from the original two stories, which took place concurrently, and the sidelining of Gosling and Cooper are but two of the issues that are problematic. The main issue is the children themselves. In a film of complex psychology up to this point, where nothing is either black or white- even in a world of cops and bank robbers- Cross’ son, AJ, is reduced to a wannabe gangster goon, who speaks an inexplicable and barely discernible street slang. Jason, Glanton’s son, on the other hand has a sharp character arc that is never remotely convincing.
It’s a shame that a film full of resonance rings so hollow in the end, but The Place Beyond the Pines illustrates a truth that is often found in real life- the failure of sons to live up to their fathers’ legacies.