The Place Beyond the Pines
Derek Cianfrance // 2013 // 140 mins
**This review contains spoilers**
"The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children." It's an age old concept and one that has been explored in cinema many times, though rarely as explicitly and thoroughly as in Derek Cianfrance's modern day tragedy The Place Beyond the Pines.
A motorcycle stunt rider known as Handsome Luke (Ryan Gosling) leaves a steady job with a travelling carnival when he learns that a former fling from Schenectady, New York has recently given birth to his son. Determined to provide for Romina (Eva Mendes) and his child, Luke turns to robbing banks in order to acquire the money he hopes will help him prove his worth as a father. When his erratic behaviour threatens the happy family unit he so badly desires Luke becomes desperate and as a result becomes sloppy in his execution, colliding with a young up-and-coming cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Cross is both determined and idealistic, an outlook that is soon shattered when he becomes exposed to the corruption that riddles his department. The narrative spans 15 years and explores the impact that our life choices have on our children as two young men find their paths taking unexpected turns as a result of their fathers legacies.
Adopting a bold triptych plot structure, Cianfrance explores in intimate detail the cause and effect nature of bad decisions and the way in which these decisions impact, however unintentionally, the lives of those closest to us. The first act, and by far the strongest, is concerned with Luke and his desire to be the father he never had, to take on his newfound responsibilities and prove that he can provide for his son in the way he feels a father should. Luke very much feels like a cousin to Goslings earlier, now iconic, character from Drive and the actor has once again created a charismatic anti-hero that is every bit as captivating and every bit as cool. Luke is a victim of his own bad judgement, as his good intentions but limited resources see him resort to crime, and Gosling perfectly captures the desperation of his actions. As Luke's friend and partner in crime Robin, Ben Mendelsohn also delivers a strong performance and shares a great chemistry with Gosling while Eva Mendes does her best with a character that is simply too undeveloped to have any real impact.
The transition from Luke's story to Avery's is an abrupt one and Cianfrance deserves praise for his bravery in so fiercely shifting the focus after a pitch perfect first act. With this transition the story delves into the opposite side of the law and provides a behind the scenes look at the behaviours of the supposed 'good guys'. Bradley Cooper turns in his best work to date as Avery; an optimistic law graduate whose decision to work in the police force sees him uncover the hushed corruption and illegal practices of his fellow officers, and though the troubled character allows Cooper to demonstrate his dramatic abilities he pales in the shadow of Gosling's Luke and never truly steps up as a confident successor. Moving into a more explicit crime drama feels like a natural progression to the story but in making the transition the film loses some of the momentum that drove the high-octane first act and though this segment is just as well crafted it is clear that the film peaked with Luke's story.
A fifteen year time-jump is where the films main themes really come into fruition as we bear witness to the way in which the actions of both Luke and Avery have impacted on the upbringing of their sons and the paths that the boy's lives will now follow. As the product of a broken marriage and a distant father AJ (Emory Cohen) is rebellious and careless while Jason (Dane DeHaan), in spite of a healthy, loving home, is lost, astray and in need of some direction. The two boys form an instant bond and both actors work well off of each other, doing their best to create layered, honest characters despite having the least time in which to do so. Jason is the more successfully realised of the two, though he also benefits from having the meatier role, and DeHaan is fantastic in conveying the anger, frustration and sadness of a young man coming to terms with an awful revelation. This final act to the story is very much about exploring the aftermath of a fathers dark legacy and discovering parallels across two generations.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a modern day fable that maintains it's grand scope and thrives under the carefully considered direction of Derek Cianfrance. The directors strong vision and skill keeps the film afloat and is prevalent from the brilliantly executed, prolonged opening shot through to the sentimental notes of the films closing moments. Trusting the talent and dedication of his actors the director employs striking, but never intrusive, cinematography that creates memorable images without ever placing more importance on the stylistic elements than the performances. Similarly, the films score is a perfectly executed collection of enduring tracks that never overstep their bounds, quietly emphasising the drama and never overpowering it.
A remarkable, ambitious piece of cinema, this is possibly the closest a single film has come to capturing the sprawling narrative structure so often seen as exclusive to the novel. Though the scope is great, Cianfrance maintains his focus within the expansive plot, creating intimate portraits of a number of interlinked characters. Occasionally the connections between these characters are a little too neat or convenient and the quality of the first act is never completely replicated in it's successors, but this never distracts from the ever-present overarching themes of the film. The Place Beyond the Pines is a dark study of how the mistakes of our past can haunt those closest to us, it is a modern-myth and brilliantly realised.