Derek Cianfrance's sophomore feature "Blue Valentine" was a tender actors' showcase that played loose with its timeline to explore the ups and down of a relationship. The director's latest effort, "The Place Beyond the Pines," contains a far more ambitious structure that covers four overlapping character arcs over the course of 15 years. That the movie succeeds both as a high-stakes crime thriller as well as a far quieter and empathetic study of angry, solitary men proves that Cianfrance has a penchant for bold storytelling and an eye for performances to carry it through. With "Pines," the gamble pays off.[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during the 2012 Toronto Film Festival. Focus Features opens "The Place Beyond the Pines" this Friday in select theaters.]
At first, the movie revolves around the travails of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed stunt bike rider living on the edge in Schenectady, New York. In an early scene, former lover Romina (Eva Mendes) surfaces to let Luke know he has an infant son. Given something to care about, Luke plunges into a dead-end gig before taking the suggestion of his only close friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) and robbing banks. While his acquaintance suggests restricting the robberies to avoid getting capture, some combination of hubris and adrenaline addiction drives Luke to keep at it until the police finally catch up to him. Around the one-hour mark, Cianfrance shifts this nimble heist move into action mode, as cops engage in a high-speed pursuit of Luke through numerous backroads until he's finally cornered. Luke's sudden fate arrives like a breach in the movie's initially familiar trajectory; in the wake of that development, the action shifts to the experiences of one of the aforementioned lawmen.
That would be Avery (Bradley Cooper), an earnest police officer with a newborn child of his own. While hailed as a hero , Avery faces the fretful gaze of his wife (Rose Byrne) and inwardly copes with the impact he has had on the life of Luke's child. Drawing out his insecurities, Avery faces the machinations of a corrupt fellow officer (Ray Liotta, naturally), which complicates his capacity to justify his behavior. If he's not working for the good guys, then where should his sympathies lie? After a failed attempt to make amends with Luke's ex-lover, Avery sinks into his private troubles.
With dialogue that's less analytical than implicative, Cianfrance leaves much to the subtleties of the plot to his cast. It's no surprise that Gosling delivers a tough, moody role that's still riddled with pathos. Cooper, however, has never been better, conveying the depth of solitude his character experiences through heretofore untapped restraint.
Nevertheless, there are times when "The Place Beyond the Pines" threatens to become too mopey and self-serious for its own good. The final act finds the director upping the ante one final time with a connection that at first seems too pat: Fifteen years after the earlier events, the teen offspring of the two men from earlier in the movie meet at the local high school and form a peculiar bond. But once again, performances come into play: Emory Cohen is fine as AJ, Avery's thuggish son, but Dane DeHaan delivers a particularly nuanced snapshot of youth alienation as Jason, a young man who has grown up only vaguely aware of his father's misdeeds.
For Jason, coming to terms with the shadow cast by those crimes means reckoning with the past while trying to reconcile it with his own burgeoning moral compass. The themes are weighty, but Cianfrance's use of handheld camerawork and gradual pace result in a disquieting style that smartly underplays the drama even as tension slowly builds.
The crime and police genres used to give "Pines" its forward motion are rarely seen with such a remarkable degree of sensitivity. While the similar atmosphere in "Blue Valentine" fit the setting like a glove, the dissonance of events and feeling in "Pines" is exactly what makes it such a fascinating curiosity. The movie finds the gentler struggles beneath life's uglier moments. "If you ride like lightening, you'll crash like thunder," Luke's friend Robin tells him. That's the essence of "Pines."