Director: Derek Cianfrance; Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta; Running time: 140 minutes
Carnival stunt rider Luke (Gosling) bumps into old fling Romina (Mendes) and discovers he has a son by her. In trying to provide for them, he turns to robbing banks for quick cash, but things quickly turn heavy when a rookie cop (Cooper) chases him down.
That’s pretty much the gist of the story as shown in the trailer, but there is, in fact, far more plot than that. Reciting it would risk giving away spoilers, but what I can say is The Place Beyond The Pines played out much differently than I expected; sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Episodic may be the best word to describe Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to his other Gosling-starring machine Blue Valentine. Chronicling the adversity of raising a child and growing up in hard surroundings, family disputes, corruption and the relationships between fathers and sons, this is a sprawling character study that surprises as much as it enthralls. It begins with just a little bit of a wobble, with the first twenty or so minutes setting the somber tone effectively but maybe just a little too bluntly, as it juggles ever so slightly with being contrived in its intents; not obviously, but enough to throw a hint of worry in your stomach that this is going to be trying too hard. It’s more of a feeling you get whilst watching it than something that can be easily described. Thankfully, though, it only takes a bit of time to overcome this worry as we start to form connections with the characters and really begin to believe their struggles and sympathize with them.
Then the deeper we get into the film, the more we realize just how vast it is. There are so many things in it; subplots weaving through each story line, many of which serve a purpose initially but end up leading nowhere, and many of which thrill and captivate. It has a tendency to veer off on occasions and almost forget where it’s going – in particular the third act begins to feel a bit drawn out – but it always pulls itself back again and finds direction. Unsurprisingly, because of this vast amount of narrative, it’s pretty long, and while you do feel the length on your rear, it’s never, ever boring. On occasions I actually found myself just marveling at its ambition. Regardless of whether all of it works or not, there is no denying Cianfrance knows exactly what he wants to do. I often find that one of the most impressive qualities in a director.
There are some real towering performances in this. Gosling is magnetic as conflicted, grungy, tattoo-riddled stuntrider Luke, balancing the gentle, loving father and volatile, violent edge of his character beautifully. Cooper is electric as also conflicted cop Avery Cross, drawing us into his character slowly and surely as his seemingly perfect world begins to crumble around him. Then comes Ray Liotta, who does a lot with very little screen time as the seedy, untrustworthy superior to Cross. He has a poster credit but really he’s very much a secondary player. Gosling’s real life girlfriend Eva Mendes stands out too as Luke’s old fling, and young but not-so-young Dane DeHaan is really magnificent, building on his stand-out performance in Chronicle.
By the time we reach the end it’s hard not to feel there’s still an emotional chord yet to be plucked. Its profundities leave you thinking deeply about family and consequences, but it doesn’t quite leave the lasting emotional impression that I feel it wants to – and that I wanted it to. Perhaps an unfair criticism as these things tend to be subjective, but on a personal level I would have liked just an extra punch before it left.
The Place Beyond The Pines is as surprising as it is ambitious. While there are certainly elements that don’t always work, for the most part this is smart, impressive storytelling and assuredly meaningful filmmaking. It might not be the hit of the year, but it’s definitely one to check out.