Review: The Place Beyond the Pines
PLOT: A motorcycle stuntman becomes a bank robber to support his family. A police officer must decide between corruption and his own conscience. A high schooler in search of the truth about his father must confront his own legacy.
REVIEW: The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. It's a timeworn notion, both in real life and movie-life - hey, we've all got daddy issues of one sort another right? - and it's beautifully explored by Derek Cianfrance's THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, an engaging, moving drama for grown-ups with a knock-out cast. The film plays almost like an anthology, one with stories revolving around bad decisions made be not-bad people, and how those decisions not only effect the perpetrators of the deed, but their families, and the families of those around him. It's about how the things you do ripple through your genealogy.
Fully explaining the plot is difficult, as there isn't one plot, but three, and their relation to one another is key to the involving mystery PINES has to offer. What we're presented with at first is the tale of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who travels with a carnival from town to town; a thoroughly meaningless existence. When he revisits the upstate New York town of Schenectady (which means, incidentally, "Place Beyond the Pines" in Native American) after a year, he reunites with Romina (Eva Mendes), who he discovers has given birth to their son Jason in his absence. Stirred by feelings of guilt, as well as purpose, he takes up an offer from his low-rent mechanic boss (Ben Mendelsohn), who sees Luke's talent on the motorcycle as a potential benefit to his bank robbery schemes.
Avery (Bradley Cooper) is a former lawyer turned cop, who rejected his successful father's path to success in order to pursue a more grounded life. After an act of supposed heroism, he finds himself a reluctant celebrity in his small town. Dealing with his new position in the force, Avery's eyes are opened to the rampant corruption in his department, and must consider his options when he can't bring himself to be a part of it.
Finally, two high schoolers (Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen) are linked together by destiny, bad luck, or perhaps both. After meeting by chance, the two come to learn that theirs is an unusual bond, one that might ultimately destroy their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Cianfrance's technique is to tell three separate stories linearly: while they're all populated by the same people, there are no flashbacks or cross-cutting to make things easier on an audience and provide them with one central character or plot point to hold on to. One story passes the baton to another, just as the pain and regret of impulsive or foolish choices are passed down from father to son. It may disorient a viewer who is looking forward to a more straight-forward crime-thriller (which the trailers are selling), but Cianfrance is clearly passionate about his style and his saga, and with a bevy of talented performers giving their resolute best, he crafts a multi-layered film that never feels gimmicky or pretentious.
Does the entire thing tick with the precision of a clock? Not necessarily. The third chapter of Cianfrance's triptych is the weakest, if only because the unfolding of the drama begins to feel more like fate and less like an authentic situation; we're meant to buy a few coincidences that bear the mark of a filmmaker trying to hold his narrative together. But Cianfrance isn't trying to pull one over on us; he has allowed himself a handful of contrivances to further pursue his interest in the nature of lineage.
Cianfrance may lean toward a sober, art-house aesthetic, but he's also aware of the pulpier aspects of PINES' story and doesn't neglect to include sequences of visceral enjoyment. When Luke rides his motorcycle through the woods, the camera whizzes right in front of him, giving us the illusion he's about to crash right into us (in fact, all of the motorcycle scenes are thrilling). An ominous ride to a secluded clearing in the woods hums with the palpable dread of a horror movie. A bank robbery that doesn't go as planned is coated with the seat-gripping intensity of a heist thriller.
The cast is, as previously mentioned, top notch. Gosling is the king of lazy-eyed cool right now, and he infuses Luke with a shaky nobility even as the character is like a walking ode to wrong-headed choices. Bradley Cooper strays a little further away from his established persona than Gosling does, playing a man who invests his energy in exposing the faults and misdeeds of others even as he approaches a good life built on a lie. Dane DeHaan also stands out as a confused kid who isn't sure if he belongs on the wrong path or not. He gave us a look at the possibilities in CHRONICLE, but PINES brings his star to a whole new level. Dude seems like the real deal.
The real revelation is Eva Mendes, who is completely stripped bare of the sex appeal that carries most of her roles; this is one of those instances some might criticize as a simple "dressing down" of beautiful woman, but looking at Mendes' face as she's confronted by agony after agony is to watch a completely lived-in performance. There's no lying there, she simply inhabits this sad creature, who approaches the possibility of happiness with a weary hesitance because she's so used to life screwing her over.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is the best movie I've seen so far this year, and it's sure to remembered come awards season.