“The Place Beyond the Pines” is the new film by director Derek Cianfrance. Cianfrance, who made such a bold and brilliantly heart-wrenching piece of filmmaking with his 2010 drama “Blue Valentine”, is back. And this time he is again toting his “Valentine” star Ryan Gosling along for the ride in this new crime drama which premiers on DVD on August 6.
A somewhat popular, word-of-mouth indie film with a notably peculiar narrative structure, it features Gosling as Luke, a hard-edged young man who makes a living doing motorcycle stunts at fairs. Luke discovers that his former flame (Eva Mendes) has a baby who is actually his. This changes everything. The notion that man becomes a father when he sees his child is put into hard play here as Luke then tries to settle into the upstate town of Schenectady, of which is the moniker that the film’s title refers. Romina (Mendes) has settled into a new life and a new man which doesn’t bode well for our protagonist. So, how does a man provide for his son? Well, he robs banks, of course! Upon meeting a down-on-his-luck mechanic, (a wonderful Ben Mendehlsson, of “Animal Kingdom”) the two manage to pull off some successful heists and let’s just say things go south from there.
A policeman in pursuit of Luke, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, in a nicely refined performance) becomes the focus of the story following a confrontation between the two leads. Certainly, an unconventional structure of typical Hollywood storytelling, and refreshing at that. Cooper’s Avery Cross succumbs to remorse and introspection following a tragedy following Gosling’s Luke. And from here, we get a glimpse into the crooked Schenectady police force and a story combining aforementioned elements to a (not so) surprising twist.
Lastly, a third segment details the chance meeting between the two children of our leading men now as high school students. Both are depressed, messed up, and on drugs. Cross’s boy, A.J. (Emory Cohen) is the worser of the two, despite coming from an upstanding upbringing. Luke’s boy Jason, (Dane DeHaan), suffers from issues involving not knowing his birth father. Up to this point, the film is mostly engaging and absorbing. The dramatic scenarios are staged excellently always with a gray area between right and wrong thus compelling the viewer to dispel pre-packaged Hollywood notions of good guy and bad guy and almost nails it successfully. Once we arrive at the last chapter, the story takes a nose-dive into very contrived territory laden with cliches about teenage boys and their (lack of) daddy issues and spoiled brats on drugs from good parents (2000’s “Traffic” did the latter excellently.) The places the young men go are unconvincing, predictable, and ultimately the story seems to stop caring and ends on a pretentiously mythic note about history repeating itself. The film ends on predictability and a pedantic sense of inevitability that feels as though it’s contradicting the 2/3 of the film that came before it.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” exhibits some truly great performances. The always reliable Gosling is the soul and highlight of the film. Cooper also continues to demonstrate that he is not just a matinee idol and an actor with great depth. Eva Mendes, an actress I’ve admittedly not been to keen on throughout the years actually surprised me and turns in what may be her best performance to date. As mentioned, Ben Mendelhsson is a great talent to watch, but Emory Cohen’s A.J. is not only an intensely dislikable character, his acting seems to be playing the state of being and the truth of a three-dimensional character which adds more injury to the film’s flawed third act.
I applaud Mr. Cianfrance for taking a risk with the structure of the film and for getting good acting from most of his cast, but there’s still more room to improve upon how he ties things together thematically. The film was so good up until the last third, which sadly dents this film from achieving greatness, but is still at least worth a peek. There’s some good to be extracted.