An indie drama just making its way to theaters from the festival circuit, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious generational drama that dwells on the sins of the fathers and how they reemerge to effect their sons. The story is told in three acts, the first focusing on Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a drifter and trick motorcyclist, and his descent into crime; the second following Bradley Cooper’s Avery, a beat cop that gets caught up in corruption and political climbing; and the third following their sons, Jason and AJ, who eventually discover the truth about their fathers and rush into their inevitable conflict.
If the film has a flaw, it’s that the script and story seems almost too ambitious. Big themes come into play constantly, and Cianfrance often plays his hand too heavy. For moments, particularly in the last third of the movie, the pace becomes almost too ponderous. However, Place’s pace is rescued by the sudden and often brutal action that pops up unexpectedly. The action is enough to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats, even during the slower segments.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s work makes the film shine. From a run down fairground to a motorcycle flying through a forest, Bobbit manages to make the action come to life on the screen while also creating a zen-like sense of calm. This peace makes the violence all the more shocking when it occurs, as it jolts the audience from their false sense of safety.
The cast also makes the high-concept script fly. Gosling and Cooper turn in remarkable performances, creating a duality in both their characters that retains the sympathy of the audience even while they make increasingly immoral choices. The young actors that play their sons also give great performances, particularly Emory Cohen, who at times seems to be channeling a young Marlon Brando. Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne are almost criminally underutilized as the love interests of Luke and Avery. Both actresses bring far more than is required to what essentially amount to small side roles.
Overall, The Place Beyond the Pines draws the viewer into a violent but beautiful world. Almost all of the characters are presented as complex, fully imagined individuals that allow the audience to sympathize with them while also reviling their choices. While not every viewer will enjoy every part of the film, no one is likely to walk out of it without a great deal to think about.