Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

It’s always refreshing when a film is ambitious. Think of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson: There Will Be Blood or Magnolia or The Master—Anderson didn’t intend any of these films to be merely serviceable. He wanted them to be great. Even when the ambition of the filmmakers overreaches the resulting film, such as in last year’s Cloud Atlas, you have to applaud the desire to tell a profound and epic story.

The reason I bring up ambition is because The Place Beyond the Pines tries so very hard to be great, and it achieves it for much of its running time. It’s not a perfect film, but its sprawling ambition and intent is impressive. By trying for greatness, yet not always succeeding, it’s one of the most interesting films of recent years.

A story of fathers and sons told over three parts, The Place Beyond the Pines spans fifteen years and four protagonists. In the first part we follow Handsome Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carnival stunt biker who turns to robbing banks to provide for the son he didn’t know he had. In the second part we follow Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop faced with corruption on his force. And in the final part we follow the sons of Luke and Avery, and witness how their fathers’ actions predetermined their own.

The first part of the film is the best. Playing a character similar to his Driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive—all icy composure and bottled rage—Ryan Gosling is riveting. Director Derek Cianfrance often has his camera follow him from behind, allowing Luke to guide us on his single-minded and deluded quest to provide for his son. During the bank robbery scenes, Luke’s voice rises to a shrill pitch and often cracks, showing the naïve youth of this character who is trying desperately to be a father. As well, the chase scenes through Schenectady, NY, with Luke racing atop his stunt bike, are thrilling.

In many ways, this first part is evocative of great American short fiction. It’s a tightly focused, melancholy story all of its own. As the first part ends the film’s scope grows and the complications arise.

The second part contains a great, atypical performance from Bradley Cooper, as Cooper’s natural charisma is twisted to serve a character who is a self-righteous schemer masquerading as a hero. In the third and most problematic part, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen do their best to tie together Cianfrance’s themes of fatherly guilt and masculinity.

The film has a striking singularity of focus. The cause and effect of every action is clearly telegraphed, linking and explaining every character's motivation. It’s strange to watch a film with no subplots that never gets boring. As becomes clear by the end, the greatest influence on The Place Beyond the Pines is the American generational novel.

The title of the film is reaching for poetic meaning as it comes from a loose translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady. The name is fitting, as The Place Beyond the Pines is a film reaching for greatness and profound meaning, trying to capture the grace and truth of an old saying like “the Sins of the Father,” and, more often than not, succeeding.

8 out of 10

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013, USA)

Directed by Derek Cianfrance; written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder; starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, and Ray Liotta.