Calling the latest work from director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (BLUE VALENTINE) a film is a little misleading; it's actually three films. More precisely, it's about three moments in time in the lives of two families. Most importantly, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is an earth-shatteringly great drama, epic in length (nearly 2.5 hours) but so intimate and precise in its portrayal of the messy, fractured relationship between parents and children. We're three months into the year, and this unexpected wonder is easily the best film I've seen in 2013 because of how thoroughly it rattled me at points.
It's even a tough film to summarize without giving too much away. In the first segment, stunt motorcycle performer Luke (Ryan Gosling) discovers that he has a son by Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he had a brief relationship with while he was in town about a year earlier. She has moved on and lives with a gracious new man, but clearly still has feelings for Luke, who very much wants to get to know his infant son and is willing to do anything he can to provide for him. The man he's working for at an auto body shop, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), concocts a plan to rob banks using his skills on the motorcycle. So he goes into a bank with his helmet on, grabs the cash, hops on the bike, and rides it to a nearby truck. The plan is so brilliant, it's bound to implode.
And sure enough, Luke gets greedy and wants to jack two banks in one afternoon. But the cops eventually show up a little sooner than expected and chase Luke around town, with rookie officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) leading the charge. As he often is, Gosling exudes an electric charge when he's in this zone. He's effectively taken many of the traits from his Driver character in DRIVE and put them on a motorcycle. He's quiet, often with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and he is prone to emotional outbursts. And you can't take your eyes off the guy, mainly because you're afraid you'll miss something if you do. It's a riveting performance.
Cooper really gets to shine in the film's second section, which focuses on the early part of his career as a police officer (after getting his law degree, but deciding he is needed more on the streets) and a husband (to Rose Byrne) and father to their infant son. This is by far the best performance of Cooper's career, and I'm including the solid work he did in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. There's nothing flashy about Avery, and when he discovers major corruption in the police force (the greatest perpetrator being a nasty detective played by Ray Liotta), he immediately goes to his superior officer at the risk of alienating himself in the eyes of his colleagues.
PINES' last section jumps ahead many years has to do with Avery's delinquent son AJ (Emory Cohen), who is always in trouble, but thank goodness Avery is now district attorney and can't afford to have a misfit son running around as he is running for a public office and is in the middle of a major campaign. AJ finds a kindred spirit at his school, Jason (Dane DeHaan), a boy his age with similar trouble-making tendencies. In addition to being about familial ties, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is about the connections we have with each other that, often, we don't want.
Some will complain (ridiculously so) that the film is trying too hard to cram too much plot and emotional components into one film. The one thing I will never fault a filmmaker for it being too ambitious, but ambition doesn't mean the resulting work is any good. It just so happens that director Cianfrance is an impressive visual stylist who isn't afraid to let things go into the realm of hyper-reality. He also sometimes (but not often) allows the visuals to overtake the story; again, if I had issues with that, I'd never be able to make it through a Terrence Malick film. I'm not comparing the two filmmakers directly, but if Cianfrance continues on his present course, maybe one day I will.
If I had to fault the film at all, it's for its third act with the boys. Cohen's thuggish performance as AJ seems almost too Dead End Kids. But beyond something that specific, this section of the film doesn't pack either the emotional or visual wallop that it needs to. It's still pretty impressive stuff, but compared to segments that focus on Gosling and Cooper, it doesn't quite match up. That being said, DeHaan (CHRONICLE, LAWLESS, LINCOLN and set to play Harry Osborn in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sequel) continues to be one of my favorite young actors. Jason's issues are more about what's missing from his life than being overindulged by two loving parents.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES feels like deeply personal filmmaking, and it's all the better for it. It's a work of great beauty, even when it's focusing on some fairly low living. And it's questions about moral choices and consequences offer no easy answers by any standard. This is a film that will have you thinking and wanting to converse with others about the dilemmas on display, and that should be the end goal of every great movie.