Director Derek Cianfrance, who helmed the devastatingly brilliant Blue Valentine, cranks up his ambitions for The Place Beyond the Pines, a gripping film experiment that works on every level.
Cianfrance, as with Blue Valentine, does a lot of unconventional things this time out. There are many stories in this movie, with strong emphasis on many characters. Cianfrance finds a way to focus on these characters in an efficient way that doesn't have us jumping from one story to another, from scene to scene. The stories progress chronologically over a period of about 16 years, with some characters fading away as others take over like runners taking a baton in a relay race.
The result is long, but never boring.
The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling's Luke, a stunt motorcycle driver, as he leaves his trailer and heads for the evening gig. The shot establishes that, although the heavily tattooed bleached-blonde Luke is a semi-celebrity on the carnival circuit, he's undeniably lonely and isolated.
Luke gets some surprising news from ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), and his life trajectory takes a drastic shift. He goes from stunt shows to robbing banks, a decision that will bring him face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a terrible haircut. Avery finds himself thrust into upstate New York law enforcement with the big boys, which includes being around much corruption (Hey, Ray Liotta is one of the cops, so there you go. Bad stuff always goes down when Liotta is in the mix).
Both Luke and Avery have year-old sons, and the film ultimately deals with their stories when they have hit 17. AJ (Emory Cohen) is Avery's son, a neglected product of divorce with a marble-mouth, a taste for drugs and violent temper. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is Luke's son, a mild-mannered loner who knows little about his father and gets high a lot. The two sons cross paths and become friends, and the film becomes a startling look at the results of bad fathering.
The movie is always good, but is perhaps at its best when Gosling occupies the story. Gosling got off to bad start this year with his junky turn in the lousy Gangster Squad. His performance here puts him back on the right track. Luke has similarities to the dark, brooding Driver from Drive (like Driver, Luke is prone to violent outbursts). Gosling brings out a sensitivity in Luke that makes him all the more tragic when his crime spree spirals out of control and things go downhill.
Cooper, recently Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, is every bit Gosling's equal in this film, making Avery virtuous at first, but prone to devious leanings. Avery's ambitions lead to broken marriages and a miserable kid, canceling out any heroic deeds from years before. Cooper has become an actor capable of delivering not one false note for the entirety of a film performance. His work here is just as strong as his work in Playbook.
As for Cohen and DeHaan, they provide Pines with an absorbing final act. It's usually a good thing when you get a movie with a couple of memorable characters in it. This film has a whole cast's worth. No character gets short-changed in the narrative. All of the actors get the screen time they deserve.
Mendes heads the supporting cast with an authority that, quite frankly, she has never shown before. She's nothing short of terrific here, and her performance should open some new doors for the veteran actress. The ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (so good in Killing Them Softly) gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Robin, Luke's only true friend and confidant. Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast with powerful work.
Cianfrance makes a beautiful movie, from the lush camerawork by Sean Bobbit, to the haunting, excellent piano-based soundtrack by Mike Patton (Yes, that Mike Patton, from rock band Faith No More). The film has something beautiful in every frame. It's a true work of art.
It's also good for a few doses of adrenaline, something that was absent from the somber Blue Valentine. The bank robberies and subsequent chases are appropriately uncomfortable, fast and tense. Luke's showdown with Avery after a memorable foot chase is a great movie moment.
Anybody thinking The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie about a dude on a motorcycle robbing banks (as commercials have implied) will be in for a big surprise. It's a sprawling work about the sins of the father that happens to include Gosling on a motorcycle robbing banks. It's also one of the year's best films so far.