I hate to agree with the consensus, but sometimes there’s just nowhere else to go. Three years ago, Derek Cianfrance made a magnificent filmmaking debut with Blue Valentine, his study of a marriage’s beginning and ending. His second film, The Place Beyond the Pines, opens in Tarrant County theaters this week, and the conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that this generational saga is a bigger, messier, and more ambitious effort by this vastly talented filmmaker. Having seen it, I have to say — yeah, pretty much. Flawed though it is, it’s still your best bet when scoping out new films this week.
The film is easily divisible into three distinct sections. In the opener, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), makes a living as a traveling circus’ motorcycle stunt rider under the name of Handsome Luke. When he returns to Schenectady, N.Y., he finds out that Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he hooked up with the previous year, has given birth to his son. He vows to provide for the baby by using his driving skills to rob banks. The middle section is about Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young cop who works a beat despite his wealthy background and law degree. In the aftermath of his encounter with Luke, he discovers just how corrupt the city police department is. The last segment takes place 15 years later, with Avery running for political office while his teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen) messes around with drugs and befriends a “loner stoner” classmate named Jason (Dane DeHaan).
Cianfrance does this all up as seriously as an O’Neill play, with all these male characters haunted by their fathers. Even though Romina already has a boyfriend (Mahershala Ali), Luke resolves to parent his baby the way his deadbeat dad never did for him, while Avery’s choice of profession is his way of rebelling against his politically influential father (Harris Yulin), though he turns to his dad in his darkest moment. The overarching theme becomes too heavy only during the third section’s character revelation. I can’t tell you how much I hate this development — mostly because telling you would give away too much — but it’s an easily predictable coincidence that’s unworthy of what comes before.
Even with that, all of these stories are fascinating in themselves. Cooper does fine work here, though his role is the least rewarding of the major ones. As we saw in last year’s Chronicle, the slightly built DeHaan knows how to do intense and weird as well as anyone. The whole vibe of the relationship between AJ and Jason — with AJ in the role of the bully who comes disguised as a best friend — is well captured. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn delivers a terrific supporting performance as a scuzzy retired criminal who abets Luke in his exploits.
As you might expect, the stellar turn here comes from Gosling, who consistently does wonders with minimal dialogue. The inarticulate Luke takes in his new circumstances with a series of eloquent stares and tears up beautifully as he watches from a church’s back row as his son is baptized. As open and demonstrative as he is in such moments, Gosling also has a cagey, hooded quality that makes you wonder what else he’s got going on. Whether he’s playing the sharp political operative in The Ides of March or the psychopathic getaway driver in Drive, I always watch him taking in his surroundings and find myself curiously wondering, “What are you thinking?” Here, as Luke’s robberies become more desperate and stupid, you’ll be asking that same question out of disbelief.
Watching this film reminded me of the deliberately paced, earnest, socially alert dramas that have come out of Iran and Romania in the last few years. The Place Beyond the Pines is not on the same level as A Separation or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, but this sort of venturesome and conscientious fare has become hard to find in our multiplexes, especially when it’s not awards season. That makes this movie an anomaly, but it’s better than that. With its high-grade performances, it well deserves a look.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance. Rated R.