The Place Beyond the Pines Makes a Heavy-Handed Grab at being a Masterpiece. It Isn't.
The Place Beyond the Pines opens with a close-up of Ryan Gosling's chiseled abdomen and heavy breathing on the soundtrack. Then in a single, five-minute tracking shot, we follow Gosling's character, Luke, across a fairground and into the tent where Luke and two other stunt motorcycle performers ride their bikes into a large sphere known as the "globe of death." Around they go, defying gravity and mortality — and, one assumes, proving something to themselves. It's a pretty apt metaphor for most of what follows in this tortured study of masculine ethos across the generations, of failed fathers and the sons doomed to become them.
Luke's story is but one of three that director Derek Cianfrance sets out to tell. Reeling from the discovery that a casual fling with a waitress (Eva Mendes) has resulted in an infant son, Luke decides to quit the carny circuit and, with a little prompting from a local mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn), takes up the more lucrative profession of armed robbery. Their M.O. consists of Luke knocking over banks, speeding away from the scene on his bike and right into the back of Mendelsohn's waiting cargo truck. But when Luke starts to get a little too daring for his own good, his partner blanches, warning, "If you ride like lightning, you're gonna crash like thunder."
Luke does crash into rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who's clearly working on his own set of self-identification and daddy issues. Avery is a father, too, of a boy roughly the same age as Luke's, and if you think that bit of plotting won't eventually be milked for its full Jacobean portent, you'd best leave before the movie reaches Act Three: "15 Years Later." In the meantime, Cooper effectively takes over the picture, as the mood shifts from brooding romantic melodrama to terse police procedural. Cooper's terrific, too, oozing raw charisma and callow self-interest.
Cianfrance is a gifted stylist with a penchant for the mythic. His best film remains his debut, Brother Tied (1998), a modern riff on the Cain and Abel story set in small-town Colorado, brilliantly shot in black-and-white and widely screened at festivals (including Sundance), but never distributed and now almost impossible to see. The Place Beyond the Pines is a much bigger canvas, and scene by scene it can be riveting, in part because of the meticulous widescreen camerawork and also because of Cianfrance's sure touch with actors, who rise above the ultimately thin and repetitive material. The movie is all trees and no forest.
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