Rarely does a movie promoted with so much hype and such huge promises not only deliver in ways audiences expected, but also go beyond preconceived notions in a powerful and moving way. “The Place Beyond the Pines,” written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a sprawling tale of fatherhood, love and family. The film does an incredible job of telling a breathtaking story while maintaining an ability to defy any expectations of its massive scale and emotional impact.
The film chronicles a community of people in Schenectady, N.Y., beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present. Ryan Gosling is Luke, a daredevil motorcyclist in a traveling carnival. He is covered in tattoos but still takes the time to sign autographs for a group of adoring children. He lives his life in motion, and his occupation and appearance belie somebody who is goodhearted, but who has nothing to lose. Things change when he discovers the existence of his son whose mother, Romina (Eva Mendes), is ready to move on with her life without Luke. Here we see Luke’s qualities shine as his life begins to change. Befriending a local mechanic, he begins to use his talents learned from the carnival to rob banks to help Romina raise their son.
In the same small city is Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie police officer with a law degree, who is the polar opposite of Luke. He is eager to move up in the police force, and the city’s new “Motorcycle Bandit” seems to present him with an opportunity. When Avery and Luke’s paths cross, the entire city is shaken, and the effects on their families are irreversible. The interactions between their sons are especially moving, and the relationship between them is shocking.
Perhaps because of the success of his last film, “Blue Valentine” (2010), Cianfrance decided to stick with telling a story that felt incredibly real at a deep and emotional level. This time, however, he chose to explore the lives of families instead of separating lovers. He does so extremely effectively – he tells a story that expands far beyond the scope of a two-person relationship. The setting provides an almost timeless city, an upstate city in New York with both rural wilderness and crowded suburbs. The forests that line the highways here give an isolated feel to the city, as if the events portrayed in the fifteen years chronicled here are untouched by events outside. Here, Cianfrance focused on the hometown of his wife.
Ryan Gosling here takes on a role much like his silent, yet empathetic character in “Drive” (2011). He does an excellent job as a criminal whom the audience will root for, as when he shrieks at customers in a panicked state of desperation while trying to support his son. After spending months learning to ride a motorcycle for the role, Gosling’s preparation for the role shows – his tattooed body and sincere give-it-all attitude for his family paint a character who can be simultaneously lost but also so sure what needs to be done. Bradley Cooper excels as the tortured cop who is stuck between his job and his family, his loyalty to the police force and the honesty he learned in law school. He is a stark and clear contrast from Ryan Gosling – clean-cut versus tattoo-covered, Ivy League grad versus middle school dropout. Ray Liotta too shines as the corrupt detective who makes the audience uncomfortable for the characters he manipulates in order to access both money and power. The tense scenes between Cooper and himself are strong and scary.
Overall, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a tale both much longer and inclusive than what was forcasted by previews. Although the film stretches sometimes to fill its two and a half hours and is told like a phenomenal novel, it still manages to take its audience through a series of worlds without becoming boring. The film will likely please all audiences on its nationwide release, and will certainly not be forgotten by next awards season.