Luke is seen without full profile until near the end of what is, from what I could count, a five minute tracking shot. Not since The Wrestler have we seen such a sustained hand-held-from-behind shot where we follow a man into an arena of physicality as in The Place in the Pines where Luke (Ryan Gosling) is at an amusement park, lifts a couple of weights to get pumped up, and walks over to his tent where he gets on to a motorcycle, then inside of a small dome with a few other riders, and proceeds to do stunt riding all inside of the dome. It ends, he gets out, and the movie goes on.
This sets up the character so well without saying anything, but director Derek Cianfrance then takes things to the next, personal level with this character. He has a fling with a local girl, Romina (Eva Mendes), then leaves and comes back a year later to say hi. Turns out she had a baby – his – and now he feels a great level of responsibility. Trouble is, she doesn’t really want anything to do with him – that is, as a father. She feels attraction towards him (what rational-thinking woman wouldn’t want to be with Gosling after all), but he isn’t entirely a trust-worthy person on the front of fatherhood. Not to mention she has met another man in this interim time, and now Luke is in a bind: how to provide for this baby, when he no longer works at the amusement park. Robbing banks could do the trick, says Luke’s friend Jack (Craig Van Hook, a terrifically sleazy screen presence, at least as this character).
These bank robberies lead Luke into a world of trouble and, in fact, death at the hands of a beat cop in Synecdoche, Avery (Bradley Cooper), in the midst of a shoot-out. From here the film gets into a part two, where it goes from being a very richly told though still pulpy tale of a bank robbing metal-head stunt-cyclist trying to get back with his woman, to a cop drama involving an injured cop, off-the-books bank-robbed cash and crooked cops. This part of the film, which also features Ray Liotta as one such cop, works as well as it can, and benefits from Cianfrance’s direction which, as in Blue Valentine, allows for raw, naturalistic performances to uplift the more genre-trope elements. Cooper is also very good in this role, a decent guy with a baby at home (same age as Luke’s baby) who doesn’t want to be a hero cop really, especially this way, and is much too smart as a once-potential lawyer to go into the crooked part of the police department. Much better to take the whole bloody lot of them down and become DA instead.
And then something surprising happens yet again in The Place Beyond the Pines, just when I thought the film might (almost) be near its finish: it gets into what, as Cianfrance has said in interviews, the film may be really ‘about’, as it goes ahead fifteen years of time, and now little AJ (Avery’s kid) and little Jason (Luke and Romina’s) are now teenagers, and as (bad) luck would have it wind up at the same high school as Avery runs for attorney general of the state. The bad luck is, well, AJ is a little s***, into lots of drugs and partying and being an a-hole, while Jason, not an innocent, is just a kid without his father. How will this all come into play...
I describe so much here because there is a lot of story in The Place Beyond the Pines, and in an odd way it’s a little like a Pulp Fiction narrative which is most surprising of all considering how much Cianfrance, once a documentarian (as was his co-writer Ben Coccio), takes such crime-drama elements so straight-on, brushing away artifice as much as he can. It’s three stories in one story spread across generations, and yet I still remember most fondly and would love to revisit over and over the Gosling storyline with Luke. Here Gosling really shines like I haven’t seen him quite before – rather, the best parts about his character in Drive (also a stunt-driver and professional criminal, and with a moody, James Dean but *better* sort of quiet quality), and in Blue Valentine (a rough guy but with a good conscience and big heart), and he’s just impossible to take your eyes off him here. He’s so good that he makes Eva Mendes, usually just okay in her roles, rise up to what he’s doing which is just intimate, intense acting with characters we want to care about. So that by the time Luke is robbing those banks, we’re on the edge of our seats as this guy is just going too far, but we know exactly why.
As mentioned, Cooper is good as well, and can hold your attention in a role where, like Luke, Avery has to navigate the simple task of ‘what is right thing to do?’ Though a small gripe I couldn’t let go in his segment as the young hero cop was the casting of Ray Liotta. It’s not that he is bad in the film, nor does he blow any new ground either. Perhaps I have just seen him play too many hot-headed (corrupt) cops, that it felt like not miscasting but type-casting.
These first two acts or movements are so strong dramatically that the third act, for me, suffered due to less Cooper and more of these teenagers. Dane DeHaan plays Jason best as he can, as a confused, angry but intelligent young man, but the casting and writing of Emory Cohen as AJ is the film’s biggest flaw: after so many characters in the film that feel whole and three-dimensional, be they male or female (Rose Byrne has a good small role as Cooper’s wife by the way), this kid just comes off as a little druggie brat without a shred of sympathy much less believability. So that when the main conflict comes to a head it’s hard not to guess how things will go down between these two sons of, I suppose, fate of some sort.
And yet The Place Beyond the Pines is a small gem of filmmaking because of how much Cianfrance trusts in his two leads, and in his skills with DP Sean Bobbitt of stripping down things to their dramatic meat and bones. There’s no flash, there’s no super-stylized dialog (albeit there is wit, such as Luke’s friend and bank-robbing accmplice’s remark “Not since Hall & Oates has there been such a team”), it’s just the big, sorta epic story of these fathers and sons torn asunder by crimes, punishment, and duties towards their families and each other. For its missteps in casting or writing, it’s the strengths in Gosling, his most affecting work to date, and another career notch for Cooper and Mendes, plus the naturalistic atmosphere (first the mid 1980’s, then present day Synecdoche, New York) that elevates this, at its best, to grand tragedy.