*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An extended one-take tracking shot of local daredevil Luke Glanton
(Ryan Gosling) heading towards and performing one of his motorcycle
stunts opens the film. The camera then frames Glanton and two other
bikers spinning around in a metal globe dangerously - perhaps
recklessly and unpredictably - a prophetic symbol of things to come.
Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines" then throws the audience in for an unpredictable journey between the lives of four characters. This is not a movie which will fulfill your guesses if you think you've seen them all. A wide range of strong character and plot development pulls the film together when it looked like the film could burst apart at the seams. Great cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and an ambitious music score by Mike Patton (with a shade of Morricone, I think?) compliment the film's uneasiness and unpredictability perfectly.
In three acts encompassing a time period of 15 years, the audience follows the lives of Glanton, police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and their respective sons Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen). Gosling continues his strong streak of portraying violent, moody and solemnly stoic lead heroes as the loner Luke, who reawakens his paternal instinct after he discovers he has a kid with an old flame, Romina (a very good Eva Mendes). His decision to rob banks to support them quickly collides with the life of Officer Cross, who is having his own problems with police corruption (you gotta love Ray Liotta as the sneaky corrupt cop). Cooper surprises with a solid, no-nonsense performance displaying a wide range of emotions, evolving from naive to guilt-ridden - proving he could do much more than comedy or romance. It is a good enough performance for the second act of the film to live on. The third act, and this is where the film falters a bit - takes place 15 years after Gosling's and Cooper's segments, and focuses on their character's sons in high school who happen to meet by chance. Both young actors seem natural in their roles, especially DeHaan, fresh off of "Chronicle", and again portraying the lonely, painful soul very well.
A lot of "blue collar dramas" (as some call it) seem to focus on the tough life aspects and "struggling to make it out of here" kind of story lines. Some are great, some are good, but make them once, and you've probably make most of them. This film, although you can call it a "blue collar epic", doesn't really focus on the "tough life" aspect as it does with it's characters. Rather, it focuses on the more philosophical and poetic aspects of storytelling - the circle of of fate and destiny, karma, retribution; all the while balancing it out with other dramatic aspects such as police corruption, crime as a ways of finance and teenage father-son angst, among others. It's a massive juggling act, and Cianfrance and his writers are superb in fleshing these characters within a running time of 140 minutes, and not one character feels like they have worn out their welcome. Cianfrance's ambitious direction perhaps makes the film feel as whole as possible, with the three acts flowing steadily and the switch from the current act to the next feels operatic instead of sudden and rushed. I am reminded of certain mob classics like "GoodFellas" and "The Godfather" when it comes to this flow, and even though this film by no means is as brilliant as both, it certainly is refreshing and delightful to see a new generation filmmaker be this ambitious and taking risks with his audience.
Is this film great? It could be. Just because the plot is something we've seen before, it certainly does not mean the filmmaker cannot do something different with it. Cianfrance and his talented cast and crew certainly have made something different with familiar plot material. It is strongly plotted and acted, and it feels like an opera unfolding itself toward the audience. The film is worth watching, perhaps more than once. I truly haven't seen an American director this hugely ambitious since Darren Aronofsky. One thing is for sure: Cianfrance will be a name to look out for.
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