The sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the sons in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” an emotionally raw, hugely ambitious triptych of interwoven stories about love, loss, regret, revenge, family ties and the things we do to protect our loved ones.
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, this grainy drama reunites the filmmaker with Ryan Gosling, his star in the working-class domestic drama “Blue Valentine,” and pushes the intense actor into a performance that's similar to but at the other end of the existential spectrum from his celebrated role in 2011's “Drive.”
In “Drive,” Gosling was a cool character — a mechanic turned stuntman turned getaway driver. “The Place Beyond the Pines” again casts him as a macho daredevil, but this time with a tawdry carnival swagger, a tragic air of doom and a script of body tattoos announcing a lifetime of bad decisions.
After opening with a brilliant, breathtaking tracking shot — one camera following Gosling's motorcycle stunt rider Luke, clad in red leather jacket, through a raucous, neon-lit midway to a revving, earsplitting performance of his “Wheel of Death” cage act — the movie settles into a first chapter focusing on Luke's devastating life path.
Set in the rust-belt New York city of Schenectady (Iroquois for “the place beyond the pines”), the opening act heats up when Luke bumps into Romina (a de-glammed Eva Mendes), an old one-night-stand, and learns that he's the father of her toddler. The discovery shakes him to the core and awakens an urgent urge to change his life and provide for his son.
With few skills beyond motorcycle tinkering and breakneck riding, Luke takes a job with a seedy shade-tree mechanic, Robin (Ben Mendlesohn, wonderfully squalid). Desperate for money, Luke lets Robin talk him into helping pull off a series of unusual bank robberies, making their getaway with a motorcycle and box van. It's a bad decision that reverberates in profound and tragic ways through the next two chapters of the story.
It wouldn't be fair to reveal too much about what follows, except to say that chapter two takes off from a brief encounter between Luke and a tentative rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper, subtle and vulnerable), the straight-arrow son of a powerful politician (Harris Yulin) whose own ambitions clash with his corrupt police colleagues and his domineering dad. Then, chapter three focuses on two wayward, rebellious teenage boys (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen), struggling in the wake of their fathers' misdeeds and veering precariously toward lives of crime.
Cianfrance, who cut his filmmaking teeth as a documentarian, has a keen knack for capturing a rough, tactile sense of place and getting raw, naturalistic performances from his actors. And his storytelling ambitions here range from Hitchcockian to Shakespearean, although he relies a bit too much on coincidence and cosmic convergence and he soft pedals the final outcome.
Still, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is literate, compelling and high-aspiring storytelling, bringing together a wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera to relate a tale that's unusually potent in both its beauty and despair.
— Dennis King