The Place Beyond the Pines is a film about life and death. About love and repulsion. Fathers and sons. Regret and acceptance. It’s a film of wide scope that purposefully keeps its story grounded in intimacy. It’s a film rooted in precision and void of artifice. And it’s a film that, because of all this, is damn hard to talk about.
At the start of the film, we’re introduced to Luke (Ryan Gosling), a bleach-blond, fully tatted circus performer who, after a thrilling motorcycle cage show one evening, is approached by former fling Romina (Eva Mendes, perfect in her desperation). The last time Luke was in town, he and Romina had a one-night stand, which produced a son Luke never knew about. Upon learning this, Luke leaves the troupe and decides to be an active participant in his son’s life.
But there are problems.
Money. Luke has none. He takes a job at a hidden-away garage run by the affable Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, an actor who never does what you expect). Faithfulness. Romina is currently dating a kind and loyal guy who provides for Romina and her family. Either way, this new guy is an obstacle Luke must hurdle over, which, in his eyes, can only be done by earning more money.
One day after a few drinks, Robin relents to Luke that he used to rob banks. But because of the heat, he gave it up to live an isolated, burden-free life. But they get to talking. They plan, they execute, and money is gained. But as the common maxim dictates, money doesn’t buy happiness, a lesson Luke learns rather quickly.
That’s the first half of act one. And, believe me, The Place Beyond the Pines has a lot more. There is the story of a rookie police officer (Bradley Cooper, justly becoming one of the most well known actors of our time) and his inability to cope with something he experienced on duty. There is the story of a teenager (an Oscar-worthy Dane DeHaan, full of unique adolescent angst) and his inability to cope with secrets from his past. There are stories of corruption, failed youth, depraved entitlement, and so on.
The film is directed by Derek Cianfrance, who famously spent more than a decade trying to secure funding for his second feature, the emotionally explosive, impossibly raw, unabashedly intimate Blue Valentine. I’ve always considered Blue Valentine a wildly accurate cinematic representation of love lost. It’s a film that speaks to me through its frankness and intimacy, an intimacy that is embedded in every printed frame and every spoken word of The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance knows how to tell a story, and tell it well. He keeps us intrigued by never revealing more than he has to. He goes where we expect him to go, then immediately darts in a different direction. And he has some help in doing so.
The Place Beyond the Pines is filled with talent at the top of their respective games. As Luke, Gosling does what we’ve come to know him to do. He scowls, he stands still, he smokes, he speaks through a shaky voice, he reacts to situations violently, he adds humor were appropriate, and so on. And, if I’m being honest, Gosling is treading on dangerous ground here. He’s on the cusp of making his character a caricature. But let’s worry about that if it indeed ever happens. For now, we’re presented with yet another performance of impeccable, often still, power.
All of the supporting players (including those mentioned, along with Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, and Emory Cohen) are on point as well, even though I suspect many will take issue with one of them in particular – an angsty youth who, in my mind, represented a perfect personification of inexplicable teenage aggression.
Shot cold and calculatingly by Sean Bobbitt (who lensed Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame) The Place Beyond the Pines looks like perfection, and upon digging deeper, is somehow more. It’s a complicated story of many ideas and themes, one that’s going to get better with time. Soon, we will enter the season in which Hollywood numbs us with popcorntainment – films that seek your money through exhaustive action sequences and nonsensical storytelling. Watch what you will and like what you like, but me, I’ll take the power of The Place Beyond the Pines over that of a superhero any old day. A