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Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'

Derek Cianfrance’s The
Place Beyond the Pines
is a giant ambitious triptych — Ryan Gosling
dominates the first part, Bradley Cooper the second, and two younger actors when
the story leaps ahead in time — and this trenchant view of fathers, sons and
the determinism of class is two-thirds of a terrific film. If the last part
seems a letdown, it’s only because the first two work so powerfully to create
believable, fraught, opposite lives occupying the same time and place.

Gosling reminds us that he is one of the most magnetic
actors on screen — no  hyperbole, that’s simply
the case. As he did in Drive, he creates sympathy for a character who at a
glance seems to be an unlikeable sleaze. As Luke, he’s an over tattooed
motorcycle stunt driver in a carnival, a dagger tattooed below his left eye.
But his heart melts when he learns he has a son with Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress
he’d had a fling with when he passed through Schenectady the year before.

She has moved on to another man, but Luke longs for this
ready-made family and — hot-heated and passionate — will do anything to get
them back. Gosling and Mendes may be two of the most glamorous stars in earth,
but they completely sink into these deeply emotional people who have hardscrabble
lives and impossibly difficult choices.

For a director so attuned to the texture of each scene (as
he was in Blue Valentine), from the neon glare of the carnival to Luke’s dingy trailer, Cianfrance is also surprisingly slick at narrative
surprises here. I won’t give away how Gosling’s story is picked up by Cooper’s
with such smooth chronological ease except to say that his character, Avery,  is a former lawyer and now a rookie cop who
makes a life-changing mistake. As he faces a police department flooded with corruption,
and tries to escape the shadow of his father, a former judge (Harris Yulin,
another great bit of casting), Avery embodies the film’s concerns with truth,
guilt and moral responsibility. Cooper doesn’t have the flashier role, and he
shows great control in not overplaying it.

It’s amazing that while the narrative and the characters’ class
distinctions shift, we are stylistically in the same film. Part of the
rootedness comes from its rich, detailed setting, and Cianfrance’s assured knowledge
that places have deeper meanings. We don’t hear this in the film, but he has
pointed out elsewhere that the Iroquois word Schenectady means “place
beyond the pines,” and the film’s wooded areas hint at moral as well as
physical danger.

I hate to say that the last section doesn’t work, even with
a performance by Dane DeHaan that almost matches Gosling’s in magnetism. Moving
15 years into the future (our present) , the story follows two high-school boys
connected to Luke and Avery. But while DeHaan’s character is a jangling bundle
of unresolved questions and nervous energy, the lumpish character played by Emory
Cohen seems have come out of nowhere. And their plot is too neatly orchestrated
to give the film the sense of inevitability it seems to be reaching for and almost
earns.

 Still, that leaves us with a film more thoughtful and real than
any that has come along lately — and more skeptical about the illusion that we
can invent glorious futures for ourselves. Cianfrance may not be an optimistic
filmmaker, but he is a fantastic one. 

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