I would be remiss if I were to write a film review without acknowledging the recent death of Roger Ebert. I did not read his work as often as I should, but he seemed like someone who loved what he did, and, more importantly, loved life. We should all be so lucky.
There are a lot of movies that try very hard to be something more than they are, and to say something more than they have any right to. Killing Them Softly comes to mind, with its heavy-handed attempt to make a mob story representative of American politics. The Place Beyond The Pines is not one of these movies. It touches on themes as varied as police corruption, teenage drug use, and politics, but never to linger and never to make a point; these issues are simply the bad neighborhoods through which its cleverly constructed plot must drive in order to get home at night.
The film announces its ambition from the very first scene, a long tracking shot in which the camera follows the back of Ryan Gosling’s head for at least a minute as he makes his way from his trailer, through a carnival crowd to his dirtbike, with which he proceeds to speed through a spherical steel cage alongside two other riders. Gosling plays “Handsome” Luke Glanton, a character who will feel familiar to anyone who watched Gosling’s performance in Drive. His scenes are punctuated by the same wistful glances off camera in both movies. It’s a character he plays well.
The first half-hour centers around Luke’s attempts to reconnect with an old girlfriend (played by Eva Mendes) and provide (by any means necessary) for a son he didn’t realize he had. But his speeding motorcycle lifestyle eventually collides with Avery Cross, a cop played by Bradley Cooper, and the film opts only to follow Avery’s path away. This is the first of multiple shifts in scope and tone that give the movie its clever structure. Cooper’s character is a complicated one, but I don’t feel that his performance is on par with the one in Silver Linings Playbook. The movies major characters are mostly quiet and tend to eschew dialogue when possible.
The Place Beyond The Pines is set in a run-down upstate New York town, so perhaps it meant something more to me than it would to you. Gosling works for a mechanic who reminded me of my uncle; Cooper’s police corruption storyline seemed stripped out of my local evening news; their children drink the same chocolate milk in their school lunches as I did. The film has a broad chronological scope, but it never leaves the area.
The friends I went with all described The Place Beyond The Pines as an emotionally uncomfortable movie to watch, and I’d agree with that assessment. Derek Cianfrance (who previously directed Blue Valentine) has created a troubling movie that never takes the easy way out, no matter how much viewers may want it to. As unsettling as it is, the movie only drags briefly, when the focus is on Gosling and Cooper’s sons. The film never seems intent on reaching a given conclusion, but as you’re watching, you find it hard to expect a good one. Perhaps that’s why you’re never left waiting for the movie to hurry up and end. When the weaving plot is tied up, it feels more like a noose than a bow.