Ryan Gosling plays a carnival stunt motorcycle rider in The Place Beyond the Pines, a soft-spoken pretty boy with dreamy eyes and a sweet side hidden beneath tattered t-shirts and tattoos. The night before the carnival is to pull up stakes, Eva Mendes comes to see him. Neither of them says much, but they’ve got a history. When Luke learns that Romina has a son – the result of a casual coupling the last time the carnival passed through – he decides to stick around. He’s sweet like that.
Only thing is, the diner waitress has got a man now, a man with a job who looks after her, her son and her mother. Security. Though the look in her eye says she loves Luke, she can’t give that up. But Luke grew up without a father, and he’s determined to be one for his son. No matter what it takes. It takes a lot.
Somehow Gosling, though slight of build and diffident of manner, has become a movie tough guy. He played one in Drive and Gangster Squad. He’ll play one again in the upcoming Only God Forgives. He has patented a persona as a ladies man who is as mysterious and dangerous as he is vulnerable
We know he’s tough right away in The Place Beyond the Pines because of his tattoos, and because he’s first seen shirtless and fiddling with a knife. A friend (a very good Ben Mendelsohn) tells Luke to use his “skill sets” to support his son. By this he means Luke’s motorcycle skills but he also could be talking about the dangerous side of Luke’s nature.
Father-son relationships lie at the heart of The Place Beyond the Pines, a strong drama from Derek Cianfrance, who made such a strong impression three years ago with Blue Valentine, his debut feature which also starred Gosling (with Michelle Williams).
Cianfrance showed an individuality and distaste for formulaic storytelling in Blue Valentine that marked him as a filmmaker to watch. Plotting took a backseat in that movie. The film was impressive, but its leisurely pace and many long shots devoted to nothing more than observing behavior came across as self indulgent.
The Place Beyond the Pines is laced with a similar independent spirit, and it equally steers clear of Hollywood formula. It also comes across as self indulgent though in a different way. Where Blue Valentine needed more plot (or maybe just more editing), The Place Beyond the Pines could use less of it.
Divided into three distinct parts, the movie spans more than 15 years – it jams a lot of story into its 140 minutes. It’s too much story, actually. I wouldn’t excise any of the major plot points, but not all of the minor moments fit together easily or with grace. It’s easy to imagine the story working wonderfully as a novel. It feels a bit like a long book that has been not-quite-successfully translated to screen.
Perhaps the clearest sign of Cianfrance’s ambition is the movie’s title. “The Place Beyond the Pines” supposedly evokes the Mohawk name for Schenectady, N.Y., where the film is set. But why? This feels like the title of an important work but why, other than that (and the director’s pretentious streak), did Cianfrance choose it? I fully expect this distinctive talent to become an important and lasting voice in American filmmaking. His biggest problem right now is that he makes it too obvious how much he wants this for himself.
You probably know that Bradley Cooper is one of the stars. I’m just now mentioning him because Cooper doesn’t appear until a third of the way into the movie, in circumstances that I don’t want to say too much about. Your appreciation of this movie will be enhanced by knowing as little as possible about how the tri-part story unfolds.
But Cooper is, in fact, a major character. He plays a cop, the son of a former judge, and he has political ambitions. His character, Avery, also has a son. Unlike Luke, who cares for his son above all else, Avery is a less-than-great dad.
Cooper’s performance, however, is strong, as is that of most of the cast, particularly Gosling, Mendes, Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta, who plays a cop with the kind of swagger and shifty gaze that lets you know at a glance that he’s up to no good.