Handsome, tatted-up carnival cyclist Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) spends night after night defying gravity and safety by riding around and around a Globe of Death with two other daredevils while the working-class crowds under the big top ooh and ahh. Does Glanton ever notice that he works in such an apt metaphor for his own existence? He leads a flashy, hollow, confined, and repetitive life.
One night he changes his ways: Inspired by a chance encounter with his former lover (Eva Mendes), who informs him of the infant son he didn't know he had, Glanton drives his trusty motorbike out of the steel cage and becomes the "Moto-Bandit," a high-strung bank robber looking for one big score that will redeem him in the eyes of his makeshift family.
So begins director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, a well-organized, earnest, and hokey film whose title aptly suggests an interlocking short-story collection that's been writers-workshopped half to death. The film's literary pretensions and artistic ambitions are just fresh and sincere enough to be frustrating and irritating when they miss their mark.
The opening act of Place is its strongest, and the raw, kinetic camerawork that follows Glanton on his dirtbike conveys the mad rush of driving fast as well as anything in the Fast and Furious series. But Cianfrance's cult-member conviction that Ryan Gosling's face in tight close-up is an ever-changing and fascinating whirlpool of emotional ripples is distracting.
Gosling is still the good-looking lump he was in Drive, but he still can't stand around and attract meaning like some steely-eyed genre axiom. Just when you've had enough of staring blankly into the Gosling abyss, though, the film whips around to follow the adventures of young policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) as he chases criminals like Glanton and tries to steer clear of the bad deals going down at his local precinct.
The film's second act is also concerned with the ethical conundrums facing a new father who wants to provide for his family — only this dad is on the right side of the law. Nevertheless, Cross eventually has to reckon with a wicked fellow officer (Ray Liotta, naturally) who's trying to drag him into the murky world of the corrupt cop. A third dramatic shift moves the story ahead to focus on Glanton's and Cross' teenage sons, who have inherited none of their parents' willpower and all of their self-destructive urges.
Cianfrance is keen on the ways everyday conflicts awkwardly and suddenly become emotional showdowns, and he likes to set his stories in more remote, more working-class American towns. These tendencies are promising.
Unfortunately, the emotional fireworks of his first film, 2010's Blue Valentine, are almost completely absent, in part because the female roles here are so threadbare. (Rose Byrne, who plays Cross' wife, is almost invisible.) Cianfrance's narrative strands are also woven together too neatly at the end. But he's a hoper and an optimist, and he makes a more than convincing case that hitting the road is a justifiable way out.
Thumb's up, kind of.
The Place Beyond the Pines