The entrancing opening shots of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines introduce us to a heavily tattooed, bleached blonde Ryan Gosling playing Luke, a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival, walking beneath saturated carnival lights towards a big top style tent in which he is about to perform in a stunt show. In the show, he and two other bikers ride around and around inside a spherical cage at full speed within inches of one another. The slightest wrong move or miscalculation of timing could mean disaster, permanent consequences and lifelong regrets. Herein lies a recurrent theme of the film.
TPBTP is an epic melodrama told in three acts. The first, and by far the best, act focuses on Luke’s story. He learns a year late that he has fathered a son to ex-girlfriend, Romina, played by Eva Mendes (Gosling’s real-life girlfriend) who has since moved on and married another man. With a sense of obligation and masculine pride fuelling his heart, Luke makes the responsible decision to rob banks in order to provide for his baby boy with the help of his friendly neighbourhood mechanic, played entertainingly by Ben Mendelsohn. This, of course, doesn’t end well. Enter Bradley Cooper playing Avery Cross, the cop who gets the call to pursue Luke after a not-so-successful robbery attempt. The subtle transition to Act Two has occurred and now we follow Cooper’s character, who has not even appeared in a single shot up until this point.
The second act sees Cross attempting to deal with the weight of quick decisions he has made in moments of violence, as well as corruption and ethical dilemmas in the police force to which he belongs. He uses particular knowledge to blackmail his seniors and is propelled into higher positions in the force much faster than he would have through honest hard work. Although his actions reap devastating impacts on fellow cops, Cross manages to walk away from the situation with nothing but a mildly threatening experience. No consequences for him and a plotline that is of very little consequence to the audience.
Prefaced by a ’15 Years Later’ title card, the final act plays out between Luke and Avery’s respective sons who are in the same year of high school in the small town of Schenectady, New York, where their two fathers first encountered one another. Predictably enough, Luke’s son Jason (played competently by Dane DeHaan of Chronicle and Lawless fame) delves into secrets left buried in the past, which brings the film to an anticlimactic ending.
Where Cianfrance’s previous feature, the underrated Blue Valentine (2010) employed the use of crosscut storytelling – cutting regularly between present and past events – TPBTP allows its narrative to play out in a linear, chronological fashion. This choice certainly suits the style of the film being an epic in three acts and a passable attempt at a modern take on Greek tragedy. However, the narrative definitely sags in the second act, coming close to regaining the momentum of the first act in the end, but never quite hitting the target. There is simply too much focus on the unnecessary convolutions of the plot and not enough attention paid to character development. The characters and their morality struggles are much more interesting than the specifics of the corruption within the force, a plotline that we’ve seen many times before in films anyway.
TPBTP has a lot to say about the fine line between good and evil, right and wrong on both sides of the law, the importance of family, legacy – both good and bad – passed down from father to son, and the lasting consequences of choices which can have a ripple effect on those around us. Interestingly, Cianfrance described in an interview how early on in the filmmaking process, Gosling arrived to the set covered in fake tattoos, including one of a dagger dripping blood located conspicuously below his left eye. He immediately suggested that he had gone too far with a tattoo on his face and would get this one removed. However, Cianfrance refused saying that that was what the film was all about – consequence and living with regret. In trying to be a family drama, a crime thriller, a three-act epic, a father and son Greek tragedy and conveying all these messages about right and wrong and regret and consequence, however, it feels as though TPBTP is trying to do too much. If it just chose a particular style or message to focus on and really fleshed out all the elements of its focus point, the film could have achieved a much more powerful impact.
The film is saved by strong, emotionally charged performances by a solid cast of actors. Gosling is great, as always, but it is a role he is very familiar with – the pretty, bad boy who will go to any lengths as long as it’s for the good of his girl or his family. Cooper impresses again as he breaks away from comedy and is able to endow his unlikable cop character with real humanity. Even the supporting cast give memorable performances including Mendelsohn, Mendes and the “human knife” Ray Liotta as one of the corrupt cops. DeHaan also plays a familiar role – the misfit loner kid as we’ve seen him do in the past with Chronicle – however he does it so well and is without doubt one of the best young actors in Hollywood and one to watch.
Artistically shot by Sean Bobbitt, who was also the cinematographer for Shame (2011), the film certainly looks stunning. The palette is filled with dark blues and greens and the shots depicting the pine forests around the town where many key plot points occur are dark and foreboding, as well as mesmerisingly beautiful. The imagery is perfectly matched by a soundtrack written by Mike Patton, most well-known for being a member of Faith No More. One particular recurring musical motif of the film is a stark piano melody played over the top of reverberating bass chords. Haunting, thought-provoking and coolly simple, the music is one of the best achievements of the film.
Although its narrative is far from original and could benefit from some tactful editing, TPBTP is far from boring. The actors play their roles with gusto, the shots are visually impressive and the soundtrack will stay with you long after leaving the cinema. Unfortunately though, in trying to dabble in too many different styles and being unsure of the exact message it wants to convey, the film feels a little flat and falls short of the impact it aims to make.
The Place Beyond the Pines is in Australian cinemas now.