Go by the movie trailers and you would assume The Place Beyond the Pines is some kind of soulful crime melodrama. Ryan Gosling is a tragic (but beautiful) motorcycle stuntman who robs banks to provide for his baby son. Bradley Cooper is the embattled (but beautiful) cop obliged to stop him. Boom. Chase scenes and gunplay ensue.
Once you actually get in the theatre, you may be surprised that these two characters are conjoined only for a brief sequence one-third of the way through the movie. Two other characters pop up at the two-thirds point to pinball the narrative in yet another direction.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, director Derek Cianfrance's followup to Blue Valentine is an existential triple bill in one movie. It's not so much about crime and punishment, but the legacy of fathers.
Gosling plays Luke, or as he's known on the carnival circuit where he toils as a motorcycle stuntman: "Handsome Luke Heartthrob."
Handsome, yes, but judging by the assortment of crude homemade tattoos on his face and body, he is also lost. His job is to race his cycle with a couple of other riders in the laws-of-gravity defying "Cage of Death," a steel globe that suggests a kind of prison. After a show in Schenectady, N.Y. (which translates from the Mohawk into the title), Luke meets old flame Romina (Eva Mendes) for a sad, non-sexual encounter. Luke learns he has unknowingly fathered a son. Romina has since opted to raise her boy with another man (Mahershala Ali). But the fatherless Luke keenly feels a sense of responsibility, and quits the carnival with a vague plan to make some money to provide for his son's future. When he meets a lonely auto mechanic/ex-thief (Ben Mendelsohn), he is inspired to try robbing banks.
That path does indeed place him in the path of Avery Cross (Cooper), an ambitious cop whose career choices are weaving their own steel cage. To the public, Avery presents as a heroic cop. But his fellow officers (including a dangerous bad apple played by Ray Liotta) are ironically pulling him into a life of crime and corruption. Avery's apparent attempt to distance himself from his own estranged father, a respected judge (Harris Yulin), threaten to take him on his own self-destructive path.
The third act of this narrative picks up 15 years later, charting the converging paths of Luke's troubled biological son Jason (Dane DeHaan) and Avery's estranged offspring A.J. (Emory Cohen) in high school.
The Place Beyond the Pines has the makings of an excellent melodramatic saga along the lines of, say, East of Eden. In that, it is especially well cast in parts large and small. Gosling is far more convincing and sympathetic as a robber than he was as a cop in Gangster Squad. Bradley Cooper seems especially appropriate for a role requiring an emotional disconnect.
But director Cianfrance and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt opt to film with a sense of documentary immediacy, much in the same manner of Blue Valentine. This has its strengths, especially in a motorcycle chase scene that feels like dashcam footage in its shaky veracity.
In more dramatic encounters between characters, however, the pseudo-realism tends to undercut the film's dramatic potency. A restless, shaky camera may not have been the best medium for the heartbreak at the movie's core.
Selected excerpts of reviews of The Place Beyond the Pines.
The opening 40 minutes are a dream, and if it had carried on at that level, this might have been one of the best films of the year. The cast all push themselves to do surprising things with characters with whom they could have coasted -- you might think you know what you're getting from Gosling as a stunt rider, Cooper as a cop and Mendes as a confused romantic, but you don't. So the slowly diminishing returns feel not like a movie becoming in any way bad, because it's always so very far from being bad, but rather the gradual slipping away of something very special.
-- Olly Richards, Empire
Cianfrance keeps his eye on the long lines of the film, but a lot of the character details are fuzzy, or approximate, or just missing, and the movie, which holds your attention from moment to moment, by the end leaves you grasping for the experience you haven't had.
-- David Denby, The New Yorker
This movie confirms my Blue Valentine-based suspicion that the 38-year-old Cianfrance is one to watch. He's capable of coaxing tremendous moments from actors, he knows how to move a camera, and as this over-laden but never boring movie shows, he's willing to operate from a place of risk.
-- Dana Stevens, Slate
The failures of this film are the product of its aspirations, which makes it easy to forgive, even though the disappointment is hard to shake. The movie is a little like both its anguished protagonists, going wrong in the name of vanity and love.
-- A. O. Scott, New York Times
The Place Beyond the Pines loses its momentum when the narrative shifts. The script contorts every time it changes narrators and grows less interesting with every passage of time. Whatever is in that Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance has squandered our interest in it long before it arrives.
-- Roger Moore, Movie Nation