Title: The Place Beyond the Pines
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
The Place Beyond the Pines opens with the sound of heavy breathing over a black title card. Enter enigmatic Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorbike stuntman in a travelling circus. This is Gosling’s second collaboration with director Derek Cianfrance, following 2010’s Blue Valentine. Set in Schenectady, New York, spanning 15 years, and with a dense and intricate plot, Pines is a compelling piece of cinema. Glanton’s tryst with Romina (Eva Mendes) has resulted in a baby boy. Anxious to support his son and struggling on a pittance, he begins robbing banks. Glanton becomes entangled with an ambitious young police officer, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Cross longs to claw his way up the hierarchy of a force infected with corruption and deceit. One taut encounter between these men will have irrevocable, profound consequences not only for them, but for a wide spectrum of people.
With bleached hair and tattoos, Gosling is intriguing as the morally dubious and sometimes brutal drifter. He can be a merciless and repugnant character: a hopeless victim of the mutilated American dream. Scenes of his recklessness are juxtaposed with tender moments of paternal love. Although he is a father, he is curiously childlike in his conversations with Romina. The handheld camera which often follows over Glanton’s shoulder is certainly intimate, but can be jarring in its shakiness, though it is an interesting technique. Gosling succeeds in moulding Glanton into someone hostile and abrasive, yet sympathetic because he is so broken and earnest. Impressive, sweeping shots of the character careening along the winding roads of Schenectady on a motorbike develop a sense of his exile from society and are visually sumptuous.
It is to Cianfrance’s credit that he does not allow the Avery Cross storyline to descend into police clichés. Cross might have been a bright-eyed, irritatingly clean-cut young policeman, but he is far more nuanced. He is aware of the corruption in the force, yet he is not above manipulation and exploitation himself. Cooper is captivating in the role, and like Gosling, he manages to be both appealing and despicable. Ray Liotta is slimy and unsettling as Cooper’s boss, Detective Deluca.
The allure of the forest is central to the film, and the landscape of Schenectady is lavishly rendered in warm tones of red and gold. If there is one criticism, it is that Eva Mendes is given short shrift as damaged Romina, and her quiet suffering is often sidelined. Overall, however, this is a layered and insightful study of the nature of sacrifice and ambition. There are welcome flashes of humour (a reference to The Goonies comes to mind), and the ethereal setting adds to the harrowing beauty of this accomplished drama.
In a Nutshell: An absorbing tale of crime, alienation, fatherhood and loss, in a gorgeous setting, with fantastic performances from Gosling, Cooper, and Mendes.