I was looking forward to this one because it was directed by Derek Cianfrance. His previous film, BLUE VALENTINE (also starring Ryan Gosling) made my top 3 films in 2010, so expectations were fairly (maybe unfairly) high.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES has an unusual structure. It’s basically 3 movies rolled into one. All 3 portions feature the same characters but the focus isn’t always same. The first segment follows a circus motorcycle stunt driver named Luke (Gosling). He’s a pretty quiet, but intense character (not unlike his role in DRIVE). He runs into an ex-girlfriend of his (Eva Mendes) and discovers that she had his child. This makes Luke want to get his life together, stop roaming and settle down to provide for his kid. He gets a job as an auto mechanic to try to make ends meet, but it’s still not enough dough. His boss gets him involved with bank robberies, and before you know it, Luke is mixed up in some pretty bad shit.
The second segment focuses on a rookie police officer named Avery (Bradley Cooper) who is in pursuit of Luke. He is also dealing with corruption within the department, led by crooked cop Ray Liotta (of course!). The third segment is hard to explain without spoiling things. But it involves 2 different characters. High school students who become unlikely friends. All of these plots are connected as they finally come together in the quiet, lyrical climax.
Cianfrance is really ambitious here trying to make all of these elements work as a whole. All of these segments easily could have been made into their own feature film, and would be entertaining in their own right. It’s definitely admirable what he’s trying to do here. Does he succeed? I would say yes. Is it perfect? Not quite.
Since the segments are each different in tone, it’s hard not to rank one above the other. And if I’m doing that, I would have to say that the first portion of the film is easily the strongest. It opens with a long stedi-cam shot as we follow Luke through the carnival that he’s working at. Then he arrives at a crowd who are ready to watch him perform his stunt. He gets on his cycle and gets in this giant orb thingy, and does his stunt with 2 other riders. It doesn’t cut at all. Very impressive and an effectively powerful way to grab the audience right off the bat. This first hour is fantastic. Love the story! I was completely absorbed by every frame. The robberies were very intense, and also features a riveting car chase, shot entirely from inside a cop car.
The second segment is almost as strong. I enjoyed all the police corruption stuff, but it has been done so many times. I wouldn’t fault the film for it though since it’s all handled so well. I really FELT the dilemmas that Avery had to face. The final portion is the weakest. It’s not bad, but it feels so far from the first 100 minutes. The 2 high school kids aren’t all that interesting compared to everyone else. One of the kids is kind of a wanna-be-rapper and I’m not sure if I liked that approach. But the conclusion to this portion is good and I did like the very end of the movie. So, when all is said and done…. it’s a good flick. It starts off very strong, but then loses its way for a bit before finding it again. I was never bored and was always engaged with the story.
The performances are top-notch. Gosling…… God Dammit! I fucking love this guy! He’s so good here. He’s the ultimate quiet bad-ass! He’s very engrossing. There’s a couple of emotional scenes (like when he holds his son for the first time) that had me teary-eyed. I think it’s an Oscar worthy performance. Bradley Cooper does a solid job as Avery, but it’s hard for him not to be overshadowed by Gosling. A real surprise for me was Eva Mendes. Judging from her previous work, I never thought in a million years she could put in a dramatic performance that’s as good as this one. Her character goes through a lot emotional trauma and Mendes unexpectedly had the chops to pull it off. Special notice should also go to Ben Mendelsohn as the mastermind behind the robberies. He has a certain knack for playing despicable characters that look like they slept in their own vomit. He doesn’t disappoint here. Ray Liotta is doing what he always does, but he IS still effective. The movie also features solid work from Bruce Greenwood and Rose Byrne. As I said before, the kids aren’t as good, though Dane DeHaan isn’t bad. It’s Emory Cohen who is a false note in an otherwise harmonious cast.
The direction by Cianfrance is terrific. He definitely has a distinct visual style, which has a lot of steadicam and hand-held (but not shaky) shots. This approach provides an intimate feel, and can be very intense at times. The script is perhaps too ambitious. If he would have stuck to one storyline, this could have easily been a classic! But I imagine that as an indie filmmaker, once you get a chance to reach greatness, it’s probably not easy to stop trying. The movie already reached greatness in the first hour, so he didn’t have to try so hard. But still, it’s far from a failure. There’s a lot of worthwhile stuff here. Some of it is even brilliant. I must also mention that Cianfrance made the wonderful decision to have musician Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) compose the score. There’s a lot of moody ambience, but also some heartbreaking themes. It’s very good.
Is THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES worth seeking out? Absolutely! Gosling is phenomenal, the direction is inspiring, and it’s incredibly ambitious. But it is a little too ambitious for its own good, and that’s what holds it back from being great. Still, I would say it’s definitely worth your time. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference.
– Running time: 2hrs. 20min.