Title: The Place Beyond the Pines
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenwriters: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic, foolish, hugely contrived melodrama that nonetheless hits with the force of a locomotive. It is Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, but where that film was so organic, its pain so steeped in experience, that it barely felt like a movie, Pines is a screenwriter’s creation through and through – not quite Guillermo Arriaga-level schematic, but close. That it still connects so strongly is a testament to Cianfrance’s deft hand with grand gestures, big themes, and credible characterization. Try to imagine Crash as written and directed by James Gray and you might come close to conceptualizing this beguiling film.
It begins as a weird combo of The Wrestler and Drive, with Ryan Gosling as “Handsome Luke,” a stunt motorcyclist who takes to robbing banks after learning that he has a son by a sometime fling (Eva Mendes) and deciding that he needs to provide for his family. We spend a foreboding 45 minutes watching him try to make good by being bad, and it’s a perfect representation of the film’s odd appeal: the set-up is awfully lazy, bordering on ridiculous (Luke immediately gets a job from a weirdly over-eager mechanic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, and is told “You’re good at what you do but I can’t pay you more — wanna rob a bank?”), but Cianfrance plows through the contrivance with such confidence that he practically wills the film into taking on the weight of tragedy. It helps to have a quintessential Ryan Gosling performance as another mysterious, intensely unironic young man who’s always a furrowed brow away from a fearsome explosion of violence. It also helps to have generous heaps of raw talent at your disposal. The first act ends with a motorcycle chase that’s genuinely shocking in its no-CGI immediacy. And Cianfrance is good at slowly turning up the pressure until something has to blow, as in a scene where Gosling passive-aggressively (and then aggressively) confronts Eva Mendes’ new boyfriend.
Later, other characters edge Handsome Luke out of the spotlight, and the film becomes one of those sprawling multi-generational tableaus with the characters’ fates intertwining, sons following in the footsteps of their fathers, and the screenwriter’s chosen themes weaving through all of their lives just so. It shouldn’t work, but Cianfrance and the actors sell the shit out of it: my biggest takeaway from The Place Beyond the Pines has to do with the power of avoiding sentimentality – or just hinting at it – in situations that seem to beg for it. This is the stuff of soap opera, but the emotional beats come in quick, powerful jabs (what Luke says on the phone after barricading himself in a stranger’s bedroom) or faint callbacks to something introduced earlier (Dane DeHaan’s character eating ice cream with his stepfather). Bradley Cooper plays a police officer with a wrenching ethical dilemma, but the way he deals with it is the opposite of what you might see coming, denying us the emotional payoff that most filmmakers would consider our due. Late in the film there’s an extraordinary performance from a young actor named Emory Cohen that is stunningly convincing without regard for likability, in a role that we’d otherwise expect to tug at our heartstrings. Cianfrance is so careful in weaving his weird tapestry that when he does get to a bona fide Big Moment in the final shot, it’s a very serious punch in the gut despite being something one might consider hopelessly hackneyed out of context.
And for all the improbable coincidence in which The Place Beyond the Pines traffics, it’s not a film about fate or karma or “connection” any of the other mystical or political bullshit we might get from Arriaga or Haggis or Inarritu, or any of the other usual practitioners of this sort of film. It’s a mournful meditation on how we affect the lives of others, and how we’re shaped in very real, very direct ways by where we come from and how we’re treated. The Place Beyond the Pines feels at once kind of ridiculous and entirely true. The ability to create something with those qualities is rare and should be treasured.
— Eugene Novikov