Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines is that ambitious dramatic epic that tried, but failed to reach its lofty peaks. It had moments mostly brought out by superb casting, but bogged down by an average father and sons tale that didn't have much emotional punch, sagging toward the end when it failed to pull out all its stops. Which is a pity, given the talent at the filmmaker's disposal, only to get caught up in its moralistic and karmic focus.
The star of the show from the get go Is non other than Ryan Gosling, who plays Handsome Luke, a stunt motorcycle rider whose troupe travelling career brought him back to Schenectady, New York, where old flame Romina (a very anorexic looking Eva Mendes) to come visit, and learn that he's now the father of their relatively new born son. Suddenly the weight of the world comes crashing down onto his carefree days, and pangs of guilt and fatherhood responsibilities begin to fester, leading him to stay in town, and turning to crime as the quick way to provide for his family. A combination of his motorcycle skills, plenty of guts and an accomplice prove to be fruitful, until the second act that comes rolling around that turned his fortune another way.
The narrative then shifts to the heroic cop Avery (Bradley Cooper looking really old fashioned), whose exploits have brought him fame, and ill gotten fortune no thanks to corrupt forces in his chosen profession. Here is where the drama gives way to heavier examination of is themes, and looks at moral corruption straight in the eye. We get introduced to Avery, and become witnesses to the crime that took place, and the crime of who actually shot first, coupled with the incentive to cover one's tracks. The narrative here is the richest of the lot as it combines Bradley Cooper's acting chops, with the strength of the material at hand, where his Avery twists circumstances around to maximize personal benefit and opportunity. What started out as good intentions, actually had a different spin and motivation to it altogether.
And the final part of the three act structure fast forwards the story some 15 years into the future, where Avery is now running for political office, but is distracted on the side by his wayward son AJ (Emory Cohen), a good for nothing youth who, in what would be an encounter of karmic proportions, befriends Luke's son Jason (Dane DeHaan). This then turned into a classic father and son story, where the sins of the fathers, and that theme of guilt, befalls the next generation, and how they get to deal with it. It's the usual teenage stories of slacker-hood, friendship, fights, drugs, parties and so on, in direct contrast to the more adult moments the first two acts presented.
The Place Beyond the Pines becomes that intense character study piece that stayed engaging as long as the leading characters remained up on screen, but failed in its final act where the more lightweight, young actors took over the mantle that didn't seem to know which direction it wanted to go, mirroring their characters' aimlessness, and waste of time. Ryan Gosling did the best he could with limited screen time, and Bradley Cooper ably carried the film through to the finale. Eva Mendes was also grossly underutilized, disappearing for the most parts for more than half the film, making this quite the testosterone driven movie.
Some nifty cinematography and camera work – there were plenty of continuous shots in one take to make you sit up and take note of – and a wonderful score by Mike Patton propped the film up when the narrative failed to pick up speed in the final act, and the critical moment that will leave you pondering about is the turn in the film regarding who shot first. If only that was left a mystery, then perhaps it will provide more moral ambiguity, and forcing you to choose sides rather than to show-hand, and allow you to condemn from the get go.