Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
You may like this if you liked: Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006), Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012), Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
Luke (Gosling) is a motorcycle stunt rider with a travelling carnival. When the carnival is in Schenectady, New York he goes to see former lover Romina (Mendes) to discover he has a son. Despite the fact Romina lives with a man who cares for her, Luke pledges to provide for his son and quits the carnival to stay in Schenectady. Luke gets a job as a mechanic working for Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), however Robin persuades Luke that if he is going to be able to provide properly for his son then he should utilise his skill at riding a bike as a getaway to rob banks. Despite advice from Robin to limit the amount of times you do it, Luke decides to go it alone and is then that his path is put on a direct collision course with Avery Cross (Cooper) an ambitious cop (and father of a boy the same age as Luke’s) who is first on the scene to pursue Luke after a robbery. I do not want to say too much more but what follows shows how the actions of these two men shape their own lives and that of their sons over the next fifteen years.
So it is the old ‘difficult second album’ syndrome as Derek Cianfrance attempts to follow up the critically acclaimed and raw emotional masterpiece that was Blue Valentine. Thankfully in my view he has avoided illusions of grandeur and produced another compelling character driven drama. Keeping the raw techniques of hand held cameras and long takes of Blue Valentine but placed inside a far more ambitious and grand narrative The Place Beyond the Pines deals once again with personal themes involving the family unit. Told through an unusual three part narrative, this time the main themes consist of how the actions of the fathers then dominate the path of their sons. There is no escaping the fact that the plot itself is a little contrived and too neat in some ways. The fact one man wants to spend time with his son and the other rejects his, and then the inevitability of their two son’s lives intertwining is pure Charles Dickens (among other things). There is a feeling of the inevitable once we enter the final third and it does all feel a little predictable. Anyone expecting a drama with various surprising twists and turns will be disappointed, but for me this slightly contrived narrative is simply a mere tool to depict the narrative’s main themes and ideas which are for more personal.
We follow conflicted characters with inner turmoil trying to genuinely do the right thing but as we all know, good intentions can be relative and someone very often suffers as a result. The plot structure itself feels mythical and like that of a Greek tragedy in which character’s fates are inevitably destined to intertwine. If you are willing to forgive the narrative for feeling a little contrived and clichéd and just focus on the character’s individual internal and external battles then TPBTP is a compelling and engaging study of the human condition. It does not teach us anything new but is still an excellent character study.
Some may be put off the by the 140 minute running time, but I felt this was essential at giving the characters the depth required for us to engage with the journeys they embark on. Cianfrance himself prefers the long takes and handheld close ups providing an intimate feeling throughout despite the epic scale of the narrative. The choral score and pine tree landscapes provide an effectively atmospheric and once again mythic feel to the narrative. Gosling is once again excellent, providing a magnetic subtle presence whenever he is on screen. Every facial expression conveys so many thoughts and Gosling has once again portrayed a character that is fascinating. The first third of the film is in my view a fascinating and gripping experience.
The Bradley Cooper led second act feels less compelling and does perhaps stagnate a little. Cooper himself is solid and Cianfrance takes advantage of the naive innocence in his bright blue eyes, but his character is just not as captivating as Gosling’s. The subplot involving police corruption and Ray Liotta basically playing Ray Liotta is quite simply not as interesting as the story in act one. However the plot developments in part two are essential for what happens in part three, they just feel a little laboured in what was for me by far the weakest and most artificial part of TPBTP’s slightly unconventional narrative.
The final third contains captivating performances from Dane Dehaan and Emory Cohen as Jason and AJ, Luke and Avery’s respective sons. The two hours of our time we have already invested in this film is amply rewarded here. How the two boys meet and how Jason discovers the true identity and story of his father is all a little predictable and admittedly a little dull to watch and it was another part of the story I just wanted to get over so the film could go back to focussing on how Jason decides to shape his destiny. The ending itself is poignant and in my view provides a genuinely emotionally satisfying conclusion that manages to avoid the clunky clichés that it could have easily fallen into.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a very ambitious film that manages to be both grand in scale but intimate in its themes. If you are willing to forgive the contrived and slightly predictable plot as well as the long running time, the powerhouse performances and detailed character development provide a compelling and involving character driven drama. It will not change your life or teach you anything new, but this is honest and well thought out film making.