THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is an interesting, if flawed film. It works incredibly well, in part. The plot is effectively split into three distinct chapters focussing on different characters who rarely interact, but whose actions spill into successive stories and have a major impact on other character’s lives. It’s a film about morality, about fathers and sons, and ultimately about fate. It’s complex, and is fully aware of that fact.
The first part of the film follow a sideshow motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling) trying to reconnect with his estranged ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes) and her family, and his eventual turn to a life of crime. The middle segment follows Bradley Cooper’s hero cop Avery, and the damaging repercussions of a split-second decision on the job. The third chapter shifts the focus to a younger generation of characters (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen). I’m leaving the key plot beats deliberately vague, as the overall story is far more impactful if you know next to nothing about what is going to happen.
The strongest chapter is the middle one focussing on Bradley Cooper’s cop, which is an engaging and fascinating moral debate playing out as a dark crime procedural. Cooper is enjoying an impressive run of complex character performances, and really sells the crippling turmoil of his character’s conscience, and the wide-reaching effect that a single action has on countless lives comes across vividly. The initial chapter following Ryan Gosling’s stunt-rider-turned-criminal is pretty solid, arty, and good-looking (particularly the pulse-pounding chase scenes), but could probably have benefitted taking up more of the runtime to really develop the characters. Gosling is still a master of communicating every conceivable emotion through his eyes – who needs dialogue to act? Not him! The final chapter is incredibly irritating, a blinkered study of fate and destiny with an over-the-top emotionally blackmailing soundtrack where the surviving lead characters from earlier in the story have inexplicably not aged after 15 years.
The first or second chapters in The Place Beyond the Pines could easily be expanded into a film or a mini-series on their own, but crammed together with the third part of the story, they suffer. There are thematic and character links between the chapters, sure, but the way they are woven into the story lacks subtlety. The final story transition is pretty jarring, emotionally detaches you from the story, and squanders the slow emotional build-up of the rest of the film. While the Gosling-lead act blends seamlessly into Cooper’s, the concluding chapter of the film takes place 15 years later, and it takes us time to catch up with what has changed in the intervening time, and even longer to care about the new characters. What saves the film as a whole is the cast’s performances, which are uniformly excellent. Even when the story occasionally flounders, or you feel like a character isn’t being done justice, the quality of the acting keeps you engaged with events on screen.
I appreciate what writer-director Derek Cianfrance was trying to achieve with A Place Beyond the Pines – a multi-stranded, thematically layered character piece – but don’t feel the end result works in its entirety. Cooper’s scenes are great, but Gosling’s, though glossy and well acted, feel a little rushed, and the final act of the film is painfully heavy-handed with pathos and metaphor. I’d happily cut the whole final act out and equally divide time between the first two. That story would still have plenty of dramatic impact, it would be narratively tighter, and would preserve most of Gosling and Cooper’s affecting character arcs. We’d thankfully lose the clumsy and groan-inducing discussions of fate and existence that the film as it is chooses to end on.
A Place Beyond the Pines is definitely worth a look. The key story elements – estranged families, guilty consciences and personal tragedies may be well-worn, but the way Cianfrance puts them on screen is pretty unique. While the film suffers from a disappointing final act, and the whole thing could have been narratively streamlined, the film survives on the talent of the cast and the overall quality of the first two chapters of the story. Not a masterpiece, then, but a diverting and sometimes compelling character drama. SSP