In 2010, I recall standing outside in the bitter cold of Park City, Utah, hoping to catch of glimpse of a Sundance highlight, Blue Valentine. Star-studded with two pop icons – Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams – the line was understandably lengthy, making the chance of getting rush tickets near impossible. We failed to be part of the lucky few (13 out of the 300 standees were taken) but I did see the film during the theatrical run. Sad to say, I regretted waiting in line.
Three years later, Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine, returns with The Place Beyond the Pines, a crime drama-turned-thriller, with Gosling again in lead role. With a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, I was hesitant walking into the theater. Will this be another dud or something to tell friends about?
The Place Beyond the Pines centers around two stories connected by a common moral thread: doing the right thing. We open with Luke (Gosling), a motocycle stunt rider who decides his talents would be well-suited for robbing banks. While the means may be sordid, the purpose is just – the economic security required to support his son and girlfriend, Romina(Mendes). Though, as all crooks know, each crime they commit is like playing with fire – eventually you’re going to get burnt.
Enter Avery Cross, a new recruit to the local police force, still brimming with honest impetus. Despite having a father as District Attorney (who pressured him to follow his path, of course), Avery feels his talent should strive to rid crime at the source: on the streets. And like Luke, Avery also has a young boy.
Through chance these two men meet (obviously), in an encounter that sends shockwaves not only through their lives, but the children as well.
Gosling and Cooper share the bill in Place Beyond the Pines. Which, to any fan of the actors, would give rise to effusive exuberance – but not so fast. Cianfrance gives viewers a Pacino-De Niro Heat scenario, with both actors only sharing the screen for a brief moment.
Neither Gosling nor Cooper stray far from their typical nature, which was detrimental to the former in Blue Valentine while obviously advantageous to the latter in the (justly) venerated Silver Linings Playbook. Though Pines certainly favors Gosling, the portrayal is oddly similar to a role from a Nicholas Refn film in 2012. Cooper strays a few steps behind, playing the naive young recruit, yet lacking the apparent ethical impulse that drives him. Audiences understand that Avery is uncomfortable, yes, but lacks the necessary empathy the film requires when the actor playing him does as well.
Mendes and Liotta lie on the fringe of Pines, yet are decisively vital. Though she is a superb centerpiece in the first act of the film, Mendes (sadly) fades from light. While her lack of presence is due to narrative structure, her later appearances are lacking in comparison. Liotta, who has succeeded in becoming a facsimile of Henry Hill in subsequent roles, does well following mimicry. As crooked cop Deluca, the actor is a cunning moral adversary to Avery, who cringes at his fellow officer’s actions.
What is so tedious about Blue Valentine is the obvious outcome, despite boasting a crisp, intriguing style. The Place Beyond the Pines has the maturity to bypass such alluring ennui. Thankfully, Cianfrance has evidently grown enough to transcend convention while keeping style. The film’s running time begets an epic, yet such goals are not strived for. Pines is certainly not lacking, though. Cianfrance isn’t committed to such lofty moral conundrums as Paul Thomas Anderson, but does warrant the excitement of Freideken classics like The French Connection and The Exorcist. Additionally, much of this steller suspense is thanks to composer Mike Patton, whose soundtracks always stand out even if the film doesn’t.
While you may not mull over a moral lesson from Place Beyond the Pines, you’ll certainly want to tell your friends about it.