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by Eric Kohn
September 8, 2012 2:30 PM
9 Comments
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Toronto Review: Derek Cianfrance's 'The Place Beyond the Pines' Is Sad, Powerful and Strengthened By Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper

"The Place Beyond the Pines" Focus Features

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.

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." 

Criticwire grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A big hit at TIFF immediately after its premiere, "Pines" should be able to find a home with a midsize distributor and perform well with an older arthouse crowd.
 

9 Comments

  • Ryan | March 20, 2013 4:02 AMReply

    Great Review, Only a moron would continue to read a review after first seeing it has spoilers, too then complain about it in the comment section. Why is the world filled with such incredible ignorant dummies?

  • dora | September 9, 2012 2:37 PMReply

    An enlighten review of a great film. Thanks

  • johan | September 9, 2012 8:10 AMReply

    A great review. It really induces desire to watch the movie. A good step for a smart director and I love the cast

  • jim | September 9, 2012 12:12 AMReply

    This review is so off base. The picture disintegrates into a heavy handed, cliched mess. It starts off great but begins to fall apart about 45 minutes of the way in, and becomes increasingly preposterous from that point on. The second and third acts are so problematic that they spoil what could have been a solid film. Cianfrance's ambitions get the worst of him here though there are again signs of a director with ability. A C grade is more like it. This critic is also clueless when noting who he thinks the film will play to. An older arthouse crowd for this picture is not going to happen.

  • Caio Costa | September 9, 2012 12:07 AMReply

    Wow nice review but guys, SPOILER ALERTS?

  • diane | September 9, 2012 12:04 AMReply

    Eric: Great review well structured thanks. Sometimes peopole do not understand the function of a review.

  • Tanner Kundrat | September 8, 2012 8:37 PMReply

    Yeah great review, but I am so sad that I read it.

  • Ryan Michaels | September 8, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    ....I cannot believe this was posted. While well-written and structured, it SPOILS THE FUCKING MOVIE. Take this down, or at least have the common courtesy to make sure future readers' experiences aren't like the ones who have read it, like myself....please.

  • Mitchell | September 8, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    Way to post a giant spoiler that most reviewers have had the common courtesy to avoid spilling, you asshole.