Review: “The Place Beyond the Pines”

Ryan Gosling stars in Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.Derek Cianfrance’s sprawling, epic “The Place Beyond the Pines” is Capital-A Ambitious filmmaking of proportions we haven’t encountered in a project with Hollywood stars since “The Tree of Life” a few years back. Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement—Cianfrance’s focus is smaller than Terrence Malick’s, which amounted to no less than the breadth of Creation—but still, this multi-generational triptych of a film covers such a range of themes and aesthetic choices that it’s bound to divide audiences. Those who prefer clarity and concision to buffet-style filmmaking—that is to say, that which offers the viewer a full spread of disjointed material so they can pick and choose the pieces they want to chew on—will likely reject Cianfrance’s approach. But for those open to finding the brilliance in an overall messy work, as opposed to having brilliance spoon-fed to them, what a rich buffet this is.

The breadth of the film creeps up on you as the film moves; in fact, there’s little indication in the first act of how outside the norm it will end up being. Outside the norm in terms of storytelling, that is; in terms of style, Cianfrance’s unusually striking command is evident from the very first take, a five-minute tracking shot so intimate and raw that it avoids attracting the kind of attention to itself that would make the viewer’s mind drift to the films that inspired it (“Touch of Evil” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” among others). It follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a teardrop-tattoo-touting motorcycle stunt-rider for a traveling carnival, as he walks toward his nightly gig whirling around a spherical metal cage with two colleagues — the ultimate focus, an image that perfectly foreshadows the chaos that’s yet to come.

But as I said earlier, what’s not foreshadowed is the extent of such chaos. For its first 45 minutes, “The Place Beyond the Pines” comes across as little more than an expertly shot (by Sean Bobbitt, who lensed “Hunger” and “Shame” for Steve McQueen) and performed look at sub-working-class people who can’t catch a break in life. Just before he’s about to move on to the carnival’s next stop, Luke learns that when he was last in town, he impregnated Romina (a de-glammed Eva Mendes), who deliberately didn’t inform him of his child because he’s a dead-ended loser she doesn’t want around. So, in an ill-considered attempt to prove he can provide for the boy, Luke begins robbing banks, speeding away on his motorcycle. The getaway sequences, conveyed in close to real-time with guerilla-style framing, are viscerally thrilling — eruptions of the otherwise internal anguish Luke feels about his current situation. Gosling delivers another unflinching portrait of a flawed man for Cianfrance, even if it never quite attains the transcendence of Dean in “Blue Valentine,” likely because it’s a briefer role.

Yes, you read that right: Gosling is no longer the movie’s primary focus come the second act, in a perspective-shift triggered by events I won’t spoil. The ostensible protagonist becomes Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a young son of his own. Where Luke’s inner conflict explodes onscreen during his bank robberies, Avery’s (which is perhaps even more deep-seated, but again, I must refrain from spoilers) remains bubbling beneath the surface. As a result, the entire feel of the film changes — the shooting style becomes more reserved and refined, albeit through the same gloriously grainy film stock as the first act. However, even though “The Place Beyond the Pines” takes this radical turn, it retains its intimacy. Avery, wrecked by grief over on-the-job events and in the process of reporting corruption within his department, is fully fleshed out as a human being, thanks to Cooper’s best performance to date — eons beyond his Oscar-nominated work in “Silver Linings Playbook” in depicting real mental strife.

The third act of the film, which flashes forward 15 years to focus on an intersection between Luke and Avery’s sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively), widens the narrative scope and morphs the film’s aesthetic even further, as “The Place Beyond the Pines” evolves to reach its destination. What Cianfrance is ultimately saying with this throughly unpredictable conclusion is up for debate, although it’s clear that he intends for the film to be about our paths in life: what is preordained and what is affected by others. No dynamic is more illustrative of constructs of fate than that between father and son, and indeed, what the teenage boys do in the final third of “The Place Beyond the Pines” reflects the distinctly human struggle between mirroring one’s predecessor and forging a new road for oneself. Does the film come together perfectly? Not at all, but I’ll take an imperfect film that’s constantly trying new things, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, to an immaculately assembled film with little original to say. “The Place Beyond the Pines” may be too big for its own good, but in this era of predictable cinema, that’s an asset, not a failing.