Good storytelling. Hard to watch at times, but suspenseful and unflinching in the face of some tough moments. And two great performances from lead actors.
That's “The Place Beyond the Pines.” You would hardly expect less from director and co-screenwriter Derek Cianfrance, who once before teamed with Ryan Gosling for “Blue Valentine,” the story of a failing marriage.
This time Gosling opens the film as Luke, a daredevil motorcycle rider in a carnival careening through life with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips and tats covering his chiseled torso.
His rootless, purposeless existence ends in an instant when he learns he fathered a son with waitress Romina (Eva Mendes) while passing through Schenectady, N.Y., the year before. He quits the carnival and tries to elbow his way into Romina's life, though she has a boyfriend and Luke is clueless about domesticity.
The character reminded me of the one Gosling played in “Drive,” a poker-faced stoic hiding vulnerability behind volatility. A baptism scene in which he stands at the back of a church, tears streaming down his face, defines him: That's the family he should be a part of.
So he schemes with a mechanic on the outskirts of town (Ben Mendelsohn, superior character work) to rob banks as a way to show he can support his son. A sense of foreboding gets a grip on the story here and never lets up, aided by Mike Patton's haunting score.
Enter Avery (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious rookie police officer with a law degree, living in the shadow of his father the judge. Suddenly the movie shifts focus and takes up a second chapter, about the guilt that comes with living a lie.
Avery becomes embroiled in a messed-up crime scene and a corrupt police department (Ray Liotta's bit part is fierce). No less desperate than Luke, Avery has to find a way to leverage mess into opportunity. The result affects his relationship with his own baby son.
The movie's distinct third chapter, 15 years down the line, relies on a convenient coincidence in exploring whether the sins of the fathers will be revisited on their sons. Emory Cohen (“Smash”), as A.J., and Dane DeHaan (“In Treatment”), as Jason, impress as young men dealing with the results of nonrelationships with their dads.
That their paths would cross just as each is working that out may not be likely. But it makes for interesting and suspenseful storytelling, nonetheless. The place beyond the pines becomes a pivotal, life-altering location again and again.
Cianfrance's movie is episodic, event-driven, and the depth of these characters is largely left to superior acting and the imagination of the viewer. So much that shapes these people happens offscreen. And the women here get pretty short shrift.
But the themes — how decisions made in heated moments have far-reaching and unforseen consequences, and how the identities of sons can be inextricably bound to relationship with their fathers — are interesting ground to explore, nonetheless.
If nothing else, “The Place Beyond the Pines” reaffirms that Gosling and Cooper are two of the finest young actors working in movies today.
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