"If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder."
Some films take over my head, replaying themselves vividly in my mind's eye and dominating large swaths of my waking thoughts. These tend to be films with either dense and complex narratives (like "Inception"), or unique and arresting visual displays and cinematography (like "The Fall" or "Tree of Life"), or both (like "The Prestige"). But other films linger in the back corners of my consciousness, and their power seems a bit harder to pinpoint. Derek Cianfrance's remarkable "The Place Beyond the Pines" is such a film, and it has been lurking in my head for a week now, haunting me with its ambition, simplicity, and deep melancholy.
I want to convey some sense of why this film is powerful, and at the same time I don't want to give away the emotional and structural surprises up its splendid sleeve, so I'm going to tread carefully here, and also warn you against reading plot-heavy reviews or synopses if you want to see the film unspoiled, because it is rather difficult to talk about it in-depth without giving away certain aspects of the story which are probably better left for the viewer to discover.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" stars Ryan Gosling as Luke, a carnival stunt biker who discovers he has a son by way of old fling Romina (Eva Mendes). To his credit, he decides he wants to be involved in their lives, and quits the carnival so he can stay in town. The way he goes about providing for this makeshift family from there, however, quickly becomes somewhat less than admirable, and less than legal, to put it mildly. Gosling gives easily the best performance in the film, projecting at once both a reckless outlaw cool and an intense emotional vulnerability. A nice visual touch that neatly summarizes the captivating duality of the performance is the tattoo at the corner of his eye that looks like a teardrop, until you look closer and see that is in fact a dagger dripping blood. Here is an utterly convincing portrayal of a man who can show incredible gentleness and sweetness giving his baby son ice cream for the very first time, and then a couple sequences later be screaming hoarse profanities at the petrified employees of a bank he is robbing. (See! I'm already giving things away!) The great thing though is that you can hear the rising panic and desperation in his voice in those same screams, the fear of a man who may have a perfect and daring plan for his heist, but on the other hand may not have what it takes emotionally for a sustained life of crime.
The now seemingly omnipresent Bradley Cooper co-stars, but the less I say about his role in things the better. He carries it off well though. (Who would have thought that the earnest and unlucky reporter from "Alias" would ever end up being a major Hollywood star and Academy Award nominee?) Mendes also gives a fine performance, but her role as Romina, though incredibly sympathetic, is much less developed (as is too often the case with female roles) and she gets a bit less screen time. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn brings a weary slyness to his part as a workaday criminal who may also be playing, unaware, the part of a devil in the larger drama around him. Just listen to the music when he and Luke meet in a sunny but ominous clearing in the woods. The way Cianfrance is able to use this character both as a perfectly commonplace albeit opportunistic criminal, someone I was absolutely convinced I could find in the real world, and also simultaneously as a symbolic figure of dark temptation, is emblematic of the way the film as a whole works, functioning at once both as realism and as heightened epic, with the weight of some forgotten Greek or Shakespearean tragedy that has been shifted seamlessly into a modern environment. The alternately gritty and soaring cinematography works together with the gorgeous score to help accomplish this. The former grounds us in the real, specific, detailed day-to-day world, while the latter ties the characters and the themes together and emphasizes the scope and the emotional weight of the events. Ordinary moments are thus imbued with chilled majesty, and certain shot/score combinations held me entranced. Combined with sharp writing and acting, this results in everything that transpires feeling fated, and yet always dependent on the choices of these profoundly screwed up characters. I could have sworn this was an adaptation of a great undiscovered novel, but no, the whole thing is an original script by Cianfrance and his co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.
Again wording things carefully, I'll simply mention the fact that the film is divided roughly into thirds, and that this division has advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, the structure often makes it hard to tell where the story, or any given arc within it, is headed. This unpredictability lends an air of intensity and realism—anything could happen!—but also at times left me feeling adrift, unconnected to the plot. Only at the end could I see what it was building too. And frankly, the last third does not, for my money, quite live up to what precedes it. It fails to fully capitalize on and bring full circle all the emotions and sense of grandeur instilled by the first sections and the generally ambitious nature of the film. In fact, to put it harshly, the three acts of the story are each slightly less compelling than the one that came before, when they should be building on each other's successes. Nonetheless, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is a strong and fiercely emotional film about fathers, sons, violence, and generational consequences.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" (R) ***1/2
Note: This film was on limited release, but just this week got a wider release, so the likelihood that it is available in a theater near you just went up significantly.