Review by Jerry Roberts.
At a time when most screenplays are running on empty, Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a breath of fresh air, a three-act play about the strange course of destiny that connects a small group of people and how their actions affect the lives and decisions of others who cross their path. The script is so sharply written that it has the kind of poetic narrative that is easily found in great book but rarely found on the screen.
The movie opens with a long tracking shot of a man walking through a busy carnival to a tent where he dons a helmet almost as casually as one might put on a tie. He hops on a motorcycle and rides it into a giant metal sphere. He’s part of one of those acts where three motorcyclists ride around inside in circles, narrowly missing one another. The movie ends with another man on another motorcycle trying desperately to get away from his past. In a way, both men are trapped, both doomed, and both driving around in circles. The journey between these two men takes years, and a lot of circumstance but when we connect them back in our minds, we see the strange circle of life that has taken place.
The man at the carnival is named Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed loner who regards his job without ever really thinking about it. While doing a show in Schenectady, New York, he runs into a beautiful woman named Romina (nicely played by Eva Mendes) whom he spent time with a year earlier. She informs him that she is now raising his infant son. To our surprise, Luke sets out on a course to do right by the baby and Romina. He tries to give her money to help with the expenses. She refuses; she has a boyfriend, a very good man who takes care she and the baby.
Luke is determined to do the right thing and provide for his son. He leaves the carnival and gets a job there in Schenectady. His new boss causally suggests one day that the best way to make money is to rob small banks – not too many, just enough to make a good amount of money. This sounds like a plot gimmick, but director Derek Cianfrance has set the scene so firmly in reality that we believe the character’s motivation. Our minds are so involved in the story that we are shocked by a turn of events at which point the movie takes a hard left turn and the second story kicks in.
That story features a beat cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper) whose connection with Luke is brief, significant, and ever-lasting. Something happens that changes the course of Avery’s destiny and we find ourselves following his plight as he is wounded in the line of duty, becomes a hero, and then gets caught up in a web of police corruption that he ultimately uses to his advantage.
What’s interesting about both of these stories is that they both feature men with a deep-seeded need for personal responsibility, but find that being an immoral criminal is much easier to pull off then being a good man. These two men both have good hearts but are pulled by in inner need to do something right even when all around them seem to resist.
The movie is essentially a three-act play. The first deals with Luke, the second with Avery and yet a third takes place some years later and connects both stories in a way that can’t be described without giving too much away. Suffice to say that all the characters are connected in one way or another. It is exciting to watch the way they cross paths with each other. Of course, this would be nothing without perfect performances. Ryan Gosling, the best actor of his generation, gives a quiet and effective performance as Luke as does Bradley Cooper as Avery (even better here than he was in his Oscar nominated performance in “Silving Linings Playbook”), playing a man wracked by guilt, if not a lot of common sense. How many movies these days allow their characters to be flawed?
This is a movie that is difficult to describe without spoilers, but is so specifically written that he has us hooked all the way. Cianfrance is a great filmmaker who previously made “Blue Valentine” – also with Ryan Gosling – about the disintegration of a marriage. This film is more plot driven, but that doesn’t mean that he hurries things along. His script is patient enough and intelligent enough to tell the story as it unfolds rather than telegraphing everything right from the beginning. We are held spellbound by what the movie reveals and delighted that the decision-making capacity is left up to the personalities of the characters. This is a movie about the course of destiny and how it leads some to the path of victory and others down a path of destruction.