The Place Beyond The Pines follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver in a traveling carnival. After meeting up with old flame Romina (Eva Mendes), he finds out he has fathered a son. Wanting to do the right thing, Luke quits the carnival and starts working as a mechanic to help support the baby. He soon realizes that the money is obviously not cutting it and so he turns to robbing banks. Obviously, things do not go so smoothly for him and after he runs into ambitious rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), things become increasingly complicated.
First off, anything you have read regarding any similarities to Drive – immediately forget them. Outside of a few controlled sequences of pure style (mainly during chase or driving sequences), the only worthwhile and legitimate comparison is that both films feature Gosling in a lead role. And I think that fact alone, coupled with more than a handful of twists and turns, is enough to suggest that The Place Beyond the Pines is nothing like what you imagine it would be from reading the general plot synopsis. That certainly was how I felt watching the film.
Derek Cianfrance, who last dazzled with the emotional intensity of Blue Valentine (also starring Gosling), has crafted what is best described as an unconventionally epic ‘multi-generational’ portrait of two men on different sides of the law.
Their actions have lasting repercussions on their families and themselves. Unlike other publications, I will not go too far in-depth as to what that means exactly. But suffice to say, the film takes place over the course of a number of years and uses almost as many characters to tell the story.
While he employs style in a few cases, Cianfrance’s seems dead-set on filling the movie with substance. While it is not quite as intense as Blue Valentine was, it manages to still have quite the edge to it. He plays the content of the epic off, wrapping it around the themes of duality and morality, frequently at the same time. Rather obviously, not everyone makes the same choices. But it is interesting to see how he establishes the connections and similarities between each character, and how easily skewed some of these ideals can often be.
The main problem with The Place Beyond the Pines is the film’s borderline obnoxious runtime. It runs at 140-minutes, and feels even longer. I understand that Cianfrance wanted to create an epic in the vein of the crime dramas of the 1970s, but instead of playing it simple, he loads it up with so many overarching themes, allegories and references that it becomes hard to follow and to really understand what he is going for.
It felt excessive in many instances, to the point where he seems to be bashing the ideas into the audiences’ heads, thinking they have no semblance of intelligence or thought processing. The film is clearly not meant to be consumed by the masses, so why does Cianfrance feel the need to hold my hand and guide me through it as if it were? Why take away anything subtle, and replace it with something that is borderline insulting? Cianfrance clearly had a hard time deciding where to focus, and while the ideas are great, everything else seems overcooked or just plain wrong.
Another issue is Cooper’s character. Not once does the film give you a reason to care about his plight as the man with the bigger plan. He makes decisions in the film that are meant to shock the audience, but they tend to incite groans instead. His character only really serves a point to two integral scenes, and is otherwise a complete bore.
If anything, Cooper is basically saddled with being an extension of the themes that bind the movie like an inescapable noose. I want to blame Cianfrance for not giving him enough to be the main character he should be (not to mention the fact that his character feels like an extended after thought created after the original idea for the film). But I feel like Cooper just has not had enough experience to warrant a leading role here. The spark that really drives his stand out supporting performances is missing almost entirely here. He is just not interesting and is downright boring for most of his scenes.
Other supporting characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Ben Mendelsohn is great as Gosling’s oddly conflicted boss Robin, but he is not used nearly enough. Eva Mendes sets things in motion at the beginning of the film, but then spends the rest of it waiting around to offer mere reactions of varying scales. Rose Byrne fairs even worse, serving as a background character who is almost completely forgotten about in more than one instance.
Ray Liotta and Bruce Greenwood give good performances, but are basically relegated to extended cameos. The only ones who seem to really do anything are Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, who both give excellent performances in their roles. DeHaan is hovering dangerously close to being type-casted, but his performance here is yet another reason why he is one of the breakout stars of 2012.
But for all the issues, Gosling – nearly unrecognizable with his bleached blonde hair and body literally covered in tattoos – is just as amazing as he usually is. His Luke is hard, edgy and just a slight bit unhinged. He is used to playing closeted monstrosities before, but there is an almost quiet sadness to this character, doing what he has to do to provide.
The comparisons to Drive will continue no doubt, but while you were curious about the past of the Driver, you are almost too frightened to find out about Luke’s past. We only get mere hints, but they are enough to really drive the point home about how deeply troubled a character he is. The pain and sadness in Gosling’s eyes are enough to make you weep, and just as quickly forget some of the despicable things he does during the film. It is a tortured performance, and is one that Gosling completes with ease.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an admirable work, but the final product is more ambitious than it is accomplished. The overarching story is just too weak to sustain the almost two and a half hour run time, and could have twenty minutes of the film easily chopped out without losing much of anything.
I like what Cianfrance was attempting to say with the film, and really enjoyed the duality of the whole thing. But by the end of the film, and even now writing this review, I continue to ask myself what the point of it all was.
Hopefully the distribution deal with Focus Features will make that answer a whole lot more apparent.
A lengthy and dense film packed with a handful of great performances, The Place Beyond the Pines has great ambition but not nearly enough accomplishment.