Three motorcycles are stunt driving in a spherical cage at a circus. It’s a sight to see, but your nose is nearly grazing the walls, and the three fly by in a powerful blur, all seemingly connected in this daredevil harmony. This little visual metaphor is a wonderful summation for the near narrative perfection found in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines.” It’s a moving, surprising and sprawling epic of choices, fate, family and fathers.
One of those daredevils is Handsome Luke Glanton, played with a menacing blankness by Ryan Gosling. We meet Luke donning a red leather jacket and striding through a colorful carnival, the camera bobbing as it carefully follows the back of Luke’s head. We’re the thought that’s nagging in the back of his skull, the responsibility that won’t escape him.
At one of his shows, he meets Romina (Eva Mendes), who he had a fling with a year earlier. They’re about to part ways, but Luke learns that Romina’s one-year old son is his and makes a commitment to stay and care for the boy, even if he doesn’t really have a place in the family.
Luke’s decision to stay is based on a feeling of necessity, not precisely love or anything else. Romina’s been forced into this life and is acting in the only way she can, so why not him? “The Place Beyond the Pines” reaches for these noble aspirations while maintaining a grizzly undertone. It finds Luke turning to motorcycle fueled bank robberies and confiding in the shady mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who also provided Luke a place to stay because it felt like the only thing to do.
In an instant, the film changes gears and diverts to the eyes of a young cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). He’s involved in tracking Luke and in the events is labeled a hero by his fellow cops. His title and story comes with much more ambiguity than Luke’s. The camera has moved to side profile shots rather than following the back of their head, and the quivering frame and awkward close-ups suggest Avery’s uncertainty and dilemma as he fumbles for words.
Some corrupt detectives, led by the effortlessly terrifying and racist DeLuca (Ray Liotta), rob Romina’s home, swipe some of Luke’s stolen money and give half to Avery. Avery too has a one-year old son, and there’s a beautiful scene of moral and fatherly ambiguity when Avery holds Romina’s young baby while raiding her home.
His moral dilemma coupled with his heroic legacy is ground well tread by other films, but Cianfrance handles the plot details with complexity, melding the consequences of Avery’s choices with those of Luke’s and those of others years down the line. The fragments of these lives return in elegant, almost mythical ways, and it shows the power and sheer genius of Cianfrance’s screenplay.
Like Cianfrance’s masterpiece “Blue Valentine” before it, “The Place Beyond the Pines” maintains that precious magic and the rough edges. Critics have knocked the movie for its over-zealous self-importance, a feeling as if the whole movie plays in a perpetual climax, but then “Blue Valentine” treated the simple deterioration of a marriage with Biblical gravity as well, switching perspectives and playing with timelines as it did.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” earns its epic grace notes because it is so focused on the details and the choices that cause our lives to come full circle. Character development is driven solely in the plot points yes, but Cianfrance shows transformation in more symbolic and spiritual ways. Luke painting his bike black and shouting more words on top of a bank teller window than he does throughout the rest of the film suggest as much growth as a precious little family photograph.
Cianfrance also proves again he has a commanding control over his actors. Gosling may be something of the star, but Cooper truly gives the breakout performance that suggests a new realm of depth and complexity for the actor. His emotional work in “Silver Linings Playbook” suggested to many a different persona, but he still played the fast-talking, confident type. In “Pines,” his charisma and even his charm escape him, and he delivers a conflicted and measured performance.
Also keep an eye on Dane DeHaan, a bright young star playing the misanthropic teenager better than anyone today. His tortured, dark, scraggly features remind of a young Leonardo DiCaprio.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” may just be a masterpiece. It’s a bold, confident piece of storytelling that works because it so fully believes and embraces its narrative. Like those motorcyclists, it achieves that daring, impossible feeling of harmony.