A sobering crime drama about the life-altering reverberations that occur across two families and multiple generations when their existences fatefully collide, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is, perhaps, a little too convenient at sorting out its plot threads, but nevertheless remains a tough, compelling, uncompromising experience. Cut into thirds, with each section following a different central character, the intricately layered narrative depends in part on the element of surprise to pull the viewer throughnot because writer-director Derek Cianfrance (2010's "Blue Valentine
") and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder have made a movie chock-full of twists or anything, but because the story's trajectory is impossible to guess unless the viewer is aware of it ahead of time.
In order to not give crucial details away, one must tread lightly on a synopsis (the theatrical trailer also does a nice job of concealing things). Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman who discovers a brief fling the year before with Romina (Eva Mendes) has given him an infant son. Dedicated to being there for them, Luke quits the traveling carnival he works for and turns to robbing area banks for quick cash. At first, it would seem like a foolproof plan, one involving his swift motorcycling skills and a waiting truck to hide in the back of. Eventually, however, Luke's criminal deeds catch up with him when his path connects with that of Schenectady police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a man with a baby of his own. As Avery struggles with whether or not to reveal the dirty dealings going on within his police department, he sees his marriage to Jennifer (Rose Byrne) start to splinter. Years later, a friendship forms between teenage troublemaker AJ (Emory Cohen) and outsider Jason (Dane DeHaan), one that goes perilously downhill when Jason begins to research his estranged father and discovers a key connection between him and AJ.
One doesn't often stop to think about the possible repercussions that their every decision can have on the people around themon people they don't even knowbut such trickle-down effects can be immense, lingering for years after. It is this semi-prophetic notion that lies at the jaded heart and soul of "The Place Beyond the Pines," a title likely chosen more for its ominous intrigue than its close connection to the story being told. Indeed, this so-called place beyond the pinesa place where very bad things can happenis another way the characters interlock without really knowing it. At 140 minutes, the film is dense, spanning some seventeen years, and never short of riveting. The first third, with an intoxicating, heavily-tattooed Ryan Gosling (2013's "Gangster Squad
") leading the frame as the wayward Luke Glanton, a guy who means well but is done in by a bad temper and misguided aims, kicks things off splendidly. Often highlighted by the glittering nighttime illuminations of the carnival, Luke finds deeper purpose when he learns he's a father. He wants to do better than his own popsone who was absent throughout his childhoodbut is a relationship with Romina really practical when they hardly know each other and she's been taken in by a generous man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali)? Reminiscent of the hyper-cool, calm, tension-filled car scenes in 2011's "Drive
," the robbery getaway set-pieces are astoundingly shot in long, lucid takes by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (2011's "Shame
"), his lensing and the vividly meticulous sound effects placing the viewer squarely in Luke's motorcycle seat.
When the point-of-view changes to that of Avery Cross, it only fleetingly disconcerts, then settles in to his own involving conflicts and struggles. Labeled a hero but not feeling like one, Avery is hounded by his wife to retire from the force while he'd like to move ahead to bigger things. All the while, he is faced with a crisis of conscious that could make or break him. With his versatile, career-best work in 2012's "The Silver Linings Playbook
" and now "The Place Beyond the Pines," Bradley Cooper has gone through a transformation from a smug-looking pretty-boy into an actor of almost shocking gravitas
. The idea of crooked cops is nothing new and somewhat disappointing that it is even brought up here, but the picture never wanders away from the reality of the situation. Finally, the extended third act revives things just as the middle half had begun to lose steam, accentuated by the arresting performances from Dane DeHaan (2012's "Chronicle
") and Emory Cohen (TV's "Smash") as Jack and AJ, the latter using the former to get drugs and the former, little by little, coming unglued as he pieces together the identity of his new friend's family and their intrinsic connection to his own.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" relies a bit too much in the home stretch on conveniences to work itself out, and it is something of a letdown that Eva Mendes (2010's "The Other Guys
"), so vivacious and emotionally available early on, sees her character of Romina quickly transition into a weaker, less pro-active character than she ought to have. As an ever-complicated saga of fathers and sons struggling to do right and oftentimes failing, however, the film holds a palpable immediacy, a sense of life's cruel twists of fate hammering down on people whether they deserve it or not. In director Derek Cianfrance's world, anything can happen at any time, and because of this there is a rare unpredictability that catapults the movie above convention. Ultimately, it all leads back to the motorcycle as a symbolic embodiment of the handprints we are all destined to leave behind when our time in the world is up. Though we may no longer be here, there are, indeed, ways that we live on.