Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines is a giant ambitious triptych -- Ryan Gosling dominates the first part, Bradley Cooper the second, and two younger actors when the story leaps ahead in time -- and this trenchant view of fathers, sons and the determinism of class is two-thirds of a terrific film. If the last part seems a letdown, it's only because the first two work so powerfully to create believable, fraught, opposite lives occupying the same time and place.
Gosling reminds us that he is one of the most magnetic actors on screen -- no hyperbole, that's simply the case. As he did in Drive, he creates sympathy for a character who at a glance seems to be an unlikeable sleaze. As Luke, he's an over tattooed motorcycle stunt driver in a carnival, a dagger tattooed below his left eye. But his heart melts when he learns he has a son with Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress he'd had a fling with when he passed through Schenectady the year before.
She has moved on to another man, but Luke longs for this ready-made family and -- hot-heated and passionate -- will do anything to get them back. Gosling and Mendes may be two of the most glamorous stars in earth, but they completely sink into these deeply emotional people who have hardscrabble lives and impossibly difficult choices.
For a director so attuned to the texture of each scene (as he was in Blue Valentine), from the neon glare of the carnival to Luke's dingy trailer, Cianfrance is also surprisingly slick at narrative surprises here. I won't give away how Gosling's story is picked up by Cooper's with such smooth chronological ease except to say that his character, Avery, is a former lawyer and now a rookie cop who makes a life-changing mistake. As he faces a police department flooded with corruption, and tries to escape the shadow of his father, a former judge (Harris Yulin, another great bit of casting), Avery embodies the film's concerns with truth, guilt and moral responsibility. Cooper doesn't have the flashier role, and he shows great control in not overplaying it.
It's amazing that while the narrative and the characters' class distinctions shift, we are stylistically in the same film. Part of the rootedness comes from its rich, detailed setting, and Cianfrance's assured knowledge that places have deeper meanings. We don't hear this in the film, but he has pointed out elsewhere that the Iroquois word Schenectady means "place beyond the pines," and the film's wooded areas hint at moral as well as physical danger.
I hate to say that the last section doesn't work, even with a performance by Dane DeHaan that almost matches Gosling's in magnetism. Moving 15 years into the future (our present) , the story follows two high-school boys connected to Luke and Avery. But while DeHaan's character is a jangling bundle of unresolved questions and nervous energy, the lumpish character played by Emory Cohen seems have come out of nowhere. And their plot is too neatly orchestrated to give the film the sense of inevitability it seems to be reaching for and almost earns.
Still, that leaves us with a film more thoughtful and real than
any that has come along lately -- and more skeptical about the illusion that we
can invent glorious futures for ourselves. Cianfrance may not be an optimistic
filmmaker, but he is a fantastic one.