The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to 2010's love-as-war missive Blue Valentine, is a film of surprising ambition. Valentine was a quiet drama about two people and their love lives self destructing, and while there was some jumping back and forth between their early days as wild lovers to their current days stewing in contempt for the purposes of comparison, it was generally straightfoward. Pines spans generations, weaving a tale of familial bonds and the tragedies that can come from them, unfolding in a distinct and satisfying triptych.
The first part of our tale concerns Ryan Gosling's Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver with a badass, tattooed demeanor and bleached blonde hair. He immediately gives off Drive vibes, and it's difficult not to think about the Driver when watching this film; despite Luke's penchant for being a bit more forthcoming with words, both characters are nearly identical. You replace the jacket and the toothpick with a Metallica T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and tattoos, and you've got the same guy. They're uncommonly gifted stunt drivers with a knack for breaking the law to make ends meet and an unfortunate affinity for explosions of extreme violence. We follow Luke as he discovers an illegitimate son of his and becomes determined to do right by him and his mother (standard Driver mentality), played by a wonderfully in the moment Eva Mendes. Doing right by his family is code for robbing banks with the help of Ben Mendehlson, everyone's favorite new that guy. Eventually, a job goes wrong and he runs afoul of the cops, including Bradley Cooper's hero cop, who must struggle against the corruption of his unit at the hands of Ray Liotta in the second act, only to jump ahead a generation to follow Cooper's son and a friend at high school, played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, respectively.
This film does not attempt to hide its lofty aspirations by the time Cooper's character Avery is introduced. The trailers for Pines paints the picture of a Cooper/Gosling showdown, the hero cop versus the reckless anti-hero criminal. And that would have been pretty boring. Thankfully, what we actually get is much more than that. Cianfrance's chief concern is thematic, as he sets out to compare and contrast the actions of Luke and Avery through the lens of honor and familial responsibility. Both Luke and Avery act out of a desire to protect those they love. Both Luke and Avery make mistakes along the way, and they must face those consequences. For this is a film, and most films require some amount of conflict to get moving.
One of the weaknesses of the film, actually, is its need for conflict. Cianfrance has a lot to say, and his path to making these statements involves quite a bit of plot. Even with its 140 minute run time, The Place Beyond the Pines has to take shortcuts in its plotting. Ben Mendelsohn's character sure doesn't wait long to ask Luke to start robbing banks, which is a pretty massive contrivance purely to get Luke into a position where he can be chased by the cops. There are a few of these moments throughout, and whenever they pop up it's difficult not to notice, which constantly creates potential for throwing the whole thing off the rails.
Luckily, Cianfrance and DP Sean Bobbitt have put together a visually sumptuous film, providing glorious tracking crane shots of the woodlands of Schenectady, NY. Whatever polish was sacrificed in the name of plot contrivances has been transferred to the cinematography and the acting. We know Gosling can play his role after being basically the same guy he was in Drive. Cooper, in his first major role post Silver Linings Playbook, may not be the best thing about the film, but he is more than passable. The true surprises here are Eva Mendes, who is usually pretty much okay but happens to bring the fire as one of the emotional pillars of the film, and the two young men who anchor the third act of the triptych. We've seen Dane DeHaan, who had a breakout 2012 thanks to notable performances in Chronicle and Lawless (as well as a cameo in Lincoln), and he is fast becoming one of the true beacons of young Hollywood. Emory Cohen, though, pretty much comes out of nowhere and explodes all over the screen. His performance is both broad and subtle, acting out in such a way that is both aggressive and a cry for attention at the same time. He oozes menace everywhere. It is entirely possible that he is the best aspect of the film.
The other candidate for best part of the film is its persistent feeling of dread that hangs over nearly every frame. Each act has a focus for this tension, moving from Gosling to Liotta to Cohen, and the film always seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster. Even the opening shot, a long tracking shot that follows Gosling from above the shoulder as he gets ready to perform a motorcycle cage of death stunt, is gorged with palpable tension. Blue Valentine already showed us Cianfrance's ability to ratchet up the tension (one needs to look no further than the doctor's office scene for that), and The Place Beyond the Pines successfully builds on that foundation as Cianfrance's craft continues to evolve. The suffocating dread you feel throughout the film's lengthy run time, culminating in a quiet, lonely drive down a secluded forest road, always feels earned and manages to reinforce the central themes in a strong way. Overall, despite some hiccups in the plotting, The Place Beyond the Pines is a worthy follow-up to Blue Valentine, and is a strong film in this still young 2013 film season.