Silver Screen: The Place Beyond the Pines ****1/2
The word “ambitious” has been tossed around a lot in describing Derek Cianfrance’s crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines. It’s not the wrong adjective, but it is a bit misleading. Cianfrance’s experimentation is mostly limited to the movie’s structure, which follows a traditional three-act format but expands the scope so that each act is essentially its own film with its own unique trajectory, with the story coming full circle in the final section to show the complexities of causality.
But while the film stretches its action over fifteen years and gestures toward the existential ironies of Greek tragedy, it succeeds on the same intimate, microcosmic level as Cianfrance’s superb breakout, the claustrophobic marital drama Blue Valentine. The Place Beyond the Pines is ultimately a big-picture picture, but it unfolds deliberately and trains its focus on tiny incidents rather than their operatic sum.
The opening segment is a doomed love story about ex-con and small-time crook Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed gearhead fresh out of jail who discovers that his ex-girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is raising their young son with another man. Luke is eager to demonstrate his worth as a father and a provider, so he takes up with a sketchy mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn) who gives him a job for petty cash and an idea for a bigger score. The mechanic says he robbed banks several times in his youth and still knows the procedure-- he’ll just need Luke as a partner. They make a good team, but Luke’s impatience and desperation lead him to make increasingly impulsive decisions, until one major misstep puts him in a collision course with rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).
Avery is the son of a prominent judge, and like Luke he wants to prove his worth. His interaction with the tattooed, motorcycle-riding robber-- a man whose life experiences are the opposite of his own privileged upbringing-- provides the inciting incident that will move the rest of the movie forward and set in motion a chain of events the young police officer never could have anticipated.
To say much more would be to give away many of the movie’s many surprises, but it’s clear from this moment on that Cianfrance isn’t content with making even a well-crafted but standard crime thriller. It’s a seismic shift when the film changes perspectives and enters Avery’s milieu, in a stable home with his devoted wife (Rose Byrne) and his own young son. His own moralistic worldview is challenged by his superiors at the police department, especially dirty cop Deluca (Ray Liotta, Hollywood’s crooked cop of choice), and only later will Avery realize the ways in which his own legacy is intertwined with that of the motorcycle bandit.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an early candidate for one of 2013’s best films. Even in its final minutes, when it strains a little too hard to close the clever loop the story’s made, it’s still entirely gripping and impressively unpretentious. Though Cianfrance eventually makes plain his intentions to deal with big themes, he does so with the same precision and pragmatism he brings to the early moments of the film, when it still seems to be a more conventional, tightly focused story about guns and love. Think of Place Beyond the Pines as a kind of anti-Terrence Malick movie, where the poetry is mostly implied.
One thing Cianfrance does have in common with the defiantly enigmatic Malick is a sharp eye for composition and a love for lingering shots of nature. Cianfrance doesn’t need exotic locations to make painterly images, he can draw the sublime from the mundane: a wooded path, a decrepit roadside hotdog stand, two men with oilstained hands walking along a stream.
Cianfrance also coaxes some wonderful performances out of a strong ensemble cast. Gosling’s role as Luke initially seems uncomfortably similar to the stoic gearhead he played in Drive-- a lot of sensitive-thug eyelash batting-- but he ultimately distinguishes the character nicely. Cooper is fantastic, too, but the real standouts are the smaller players, notably terrific character actor Mendelsohn, who was the most memorable part of last year’s similarly lofty and textured crime flick Killing Them Softly, as well as young Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, Lincoln). Together they’ve made an exceptional film, a crime drama more suspenseful than your average plot-driven shoot-’em-up and more affecting than any number of more nakedly ambitious movies.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.