There’s a moment a bit past the halfway point of writer and director Derek Cianfrance‘s epic 2012 crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines when a uniformed police officer named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is in his father’s swimming pool, recovering from a gunshot wound to his leg. The older man (Harris Yulin) sees political potential in his son’s future, especially with his newfound fame as a hero, a title only Avery and the audience knows may not be entirely earned. As Avery listens and wonders himself what fortunes could be milked from his headlining story, he slowly works himself into a corner of the pool, symbolic of his situation. Up to neck, treading. It’s a brief, subtle image, and it’s one of many throughout the story that reveals the care Cianfrance used in telling this lengthy tale.
I’ll get this right out of the way. I’m not a fan of The Place Beyond the Pines, or at least the way it is told, though I am entirely on the other side of the fence when it comes to the style. Spanning decades, the plot revolves around the actions of two men in the mid-nineties, a bank robber (Ryan Gosling) and a cop (Cooper), who clash in a fateful moment, the consequences of such resonating all the way up to 2012 and its impact on their sons. It’s an ambitious idea and full of potential, yet even with the two hour and twenty minute running time, still feels incomplete. Worse, it is dependent too much on wildly obvious coincidence, which certainly happens in real life, but in a film, ends up keeping much of the later action lacking punch. That’s not too mention the motivations of both sons, coming out of nowhere and not fitting well with what came before.
However, given what Cianfrance is trying to do, it’s an earnest effort and if you’re able to get past the illogic of what drives the third act, there’s a lot that makes the film worth a look. Cianfrance knows how to build a scene, how create tension, and best of all, use his characters to show internalized conflict without needing words. His earlier work, Blue Valentine, also with Gosling, is a better example, but there are some truly terrific, even greatly challenging sequences in The Place Beyond the Pines that absolutely nails it right.
Take the opening shot, sort of famous now for its unbroken take of Gosling walking through a county fair at night to a big tent where he and two other motorcycle stunt riders enter a ‘Globe of Death” before a packed crowd. It’s a beautifully executed moment that establishes without a single word just what kind of man Luke Glanton (Gosling) is, the giant steel spherical cage symbolic of the lifestyle he leads, going in small circles with no progress, danger and death a heartbeat away. It’s dramatic and emotional and we haven’t even met him yet.
There’s another moment when Cross, unable to return to the streets yet and denied the promotion he thinks he deserves, is stationed behind the desk at the evidence locker. We see him only from behind the thick steel walls of the cages, looking like an animal trapped in a place it can’t escape. Cooper reflects that frustration well, believing he’s worthy of more, wanting opportunity to advance himself, maybe at any cost. Again, it’s subtle and brief, but it speaks much to the power of a good visual rather than wordy explanation.
Then there’s Eva Mendes. She is Romina, a waitress struggling to raise her baby from a one-night-stand with Luke, something she’s tried to hide from him. While the movie is centered on the actions of Luke and Avery, it is Romina who comes across the most damaged. Mendes is nothing short of astonishing, looking both so beautiful yet undeniably crushed, a young mother almost desperate for balance and meaning. Romina still feels something for Luke but knows that he is essentially spinning in that death globe, leaving her with no choice but to seek support elsewhere. It’s devastating, and Mendes deserves enormous credit for the work she does.
However, she all but disappears in the last act as the sons take center stage. Dane DeHaan is Jason, Luke’s son and Emory Cohen is A.J., Avery’s son, and sadly, this is where the story loses its power, even as DeHaan does some of the best acting he’s ever put to screen. These young men are entirely contrived and move forward with singular states of mind, leaving us scratching our heads as to why they feel as they do. That’s less so perhaps with A.J., even though its rather transparent, but it doesn’t make much sense for Jason, who appears to have grown up well loved in a stable home. I won’t get into the details of that, as it really doesn’t matter since that is not what Cianfrance is attempting. His conceit lies in disappointment and so this is where these sons reside. Unfortunately, for me at least, this is the least competent part of the plot, and while again, its presentation is strong, it fails to compare well with the story’s roots.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an interestingly structured movie with a host of good ideas, best at the beginning before steadily losing its footing to a final frame that has very little meaning. Still, it’s good to see a filmmaker take chances, going against the grains so to speak on what we might expect. That definitely happens more than once. I recommend it mostly for Mendes, though every bank robbery is sensational, and if the story doesn’t pull you in, pay close attention to what Cianfrance does with symbolism. He could almost tell the whole tale without one character speaking a word.