Genre: Crime, Drama
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
At its best The Place Beyond the Pines is a daring piece of cinema, portraying beautiful nuances of character as compelling plot material. It is a shame then, that much of this ambition falters in later acts as Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance’s attention is stretched to a multitude of increasingly contrived characters.
Starting with an exquisite tracking shot, there is an overwhelming sense that Cianfrance is paying homage to the famous gangster films of the 80s, with Scorsese-esque stars in his eyes. Stunning cinematography paints the backdrop for tattoo covered ‘Handsome Luke’ (Ryan Gosling) an enigmatic protagonist in a grim world.
Reunited with Cianfrance, Gosling is on comfortable ground as a quiet stunt performer but gives some more deft touches to his character, clad in inside-out-t-shirts, than he does in Drive.
When the stakes are raised for Luke, who discovers he has a son when visiting an ex-lover (Eva Mendes), Gosling is given a range of material with which to diversify his character. The bank robbery scenes here demonstrate further technical flair and keep a tight focus on character that is otherwise lost in the rest of the modern box office.
Later, after a shocking debut scene for Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the narrative shifts attention to a new set of characters. Becoming a story of police corruption and putting focus on Cross’ moral qualms, this is where The Place Beyond the Pines progresses into the multi-narrative and ultimately deviates from what initially resonated. It is then that the technical flourishes, in performance and camera, begin to imply that there is much greater film-making at work than exists in the narrative.
It is probably to diminish Cianfrance’s vaulting ambition to say that he presents the audience with three films at once, but it is unfortunately true. Each occurring story, happening in the former’s aftermath, seems increasingly unimportant. As characters come and go, it becomes hard to invest in them and get any real sense of catharsis. The final shot of the film, as one character rides away from his troubles on a motorcycle, should serve as a final dramatic flourish but instead is a sign that later acts have descended into contrivances. The 140 minute runtime doesn’t make this any more comfortable for the audience either, and if anything, the muted ending seems even less engaging because of this.
Other elements of the later acts, Ray Liotta’s corrupt police officer, Cooper’s troubled hero and DeHaan’s family problems are moved through at such pace that it’s hard for them to retain any tension, especially when Cianfrance spends most of the time trying to make them relevant to other stories. The effect of this is to give a series of stories overdependence on coincidence, making them the contrived sequels in the shadow of a powerful first act.
Admittedly ambitious then, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a triptych filled with captivating performances and occasional powerful imagery, but an uncomfortable length weakens it and a blunt conclusion finessed with cliché.