Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines opens with a long, weary tracking shot through a carnival midway and into a raucous tent, where motorcycles are revved and an announcer cranks up the crowded assemblage of looky-loos. The camera is following Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt rider, who proceeds to climb on top of a motorcycle and follow two of his fellow riders into a steel ball, where they cross within inches of each others’ paths. The audience goes nuts. But the camerawork is casual, almost bored; this doesn’t do it for Luke anymore. It’s as dull and uninspiring as working in a cubicle.
Gosling starred in Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine, and if the loose, grimy style of this picture seems carried over from that one, it feels narratively closer to Gosling’s 2011 film Drive. Luke is a particularly skilled motorcyclist, able to ride very fast without harming himself, so when he is in need of fast cash to support the son he just discovered he has, a new friend (Ben Mendelsohn) suggests his proficiency with the bike might make him an ideal bank robber.
Don’t get it twisted, though; this is no warmed-over Drive retread. In fact, it almost feels like Cianfrance had a list of movies he wanted to make, and mashed them all up into this one. For some viewers, this may work against the picture — and to be fair, it is occasionally uncertain and more than a touch overlong. But what Cianfrance, and his co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, are up to here is sort of remarkable. The Place Beyond the Pines may be a lot of things, but it certainly isn’t lacking in ambition.
It seems, in its opening passages, to be a quiet, unhurried story about modest lives. Luke is revisited by an old flame (Eva Mendes), who insists, “I just wanted to see you again.” When he finds out about their child, he quits the carnival, gets a job fixing cars, and tries to do the right thing. But another man (Mahershala Ali) has already stepped in, and Luke is desperate to prove himself worthy. That’s when he starts knocking off the banks.
Once he does, the film is invaded by a sense of doom — an even modestly savvy moviegoer knows this probably isn’t going to turn out well. The tempo shifts as well, into an antsy, scary key where violence can happen in an instant (and often does). Luke finally whiffs a job, leading to a ruthlessly kinetic car chase, in which the atypical use of long takes and fluid point-of-view shots convey a real (and rare) sense of genuine danger. And then… something happens.
I’ll stop the description there, because the stunningly bold narrative move that follows left this viewer genuinely gobsmacked. Let’s just say that Bradley Cooper sneaks into the movie quite unexpectedly (almost as if through a back entrance) at around the one-hour mark, and The Place Beyond the Pines becomes something altogether different and unexpected. More than that I’ll not say, except that just when you think you’ve figured the movie out, it takes another leap that’s equally ballsy, into the realm of long-term consequences and sins of fathers handed down to their sons.
Gosling is here playing a role that seems created explicitly to capture his essence: his skin covered in ink, his hair dirty from a recent (but not too recent) bleaching, his face a blank until he encounters this deeply meaningful moment. It’s tough to get a read on this guy, at least compared to Cooper, who is first set up as a mirror image before revealing himself to be a bit more complicated. Supporting roles are well filled; Ray Liotta has never been scarier and Mendelsohn is a real live wire, though Mendes doesn’t get much to do after her initial, promising scenes.
The Place Beyond The Pines’ narrative riskiness and emotional avidity don’t always make for the smoothest viewing experience. But Cianfrance seems less interested in a tidy chronicle than in exploring some threads, in creating a feeling and seeing where it goes. “Just capture the mood,” Luke tells a stranger enlisted to snap an impromptu family portrait. It’s a throwaway line of dialogue that, in retrospect, feels like a mission statement.