Derek Cianfrance has packed on a substantial amount of emotional muscle since his acclaimed domestic drama Blue Valentine. His follow up sees Ryan Gosling as Luke Glanton, a scruffy motorcycle stunt rider who has a son with a one-time fling Romina (Mendes) who has since settled down with someone else. In order to provide for his estranged son, Luke decides to partner up with shady junkyard owner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) and rob banks together. What sounds like Drive on two wheels ultimately proves to be something much more contemplative, and it’s all the more powerful for it.
The white-knuckle robbery scenes in the first quarter of the film are truly exhilarating and the film rattles along at such a scorching speed that it’s a challenge to predict where the film will end up after its 140 minute journey. After a particular chase scene Cianfrance pulls the rug from under our feet and the narrative shifts gears in a way that is immensely jarring to begin with. One of Robin’s early lines to Luke is a warning: ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder’. It initially feels like this prophetic line could be applied to the film’s pacing and it soon becomes apparent that what you’re watching isn’t a high octane tour-de-force, but something different entirely.
After such an incendiary introduction the film concentrates on the embers and it becomes less a film about crime and more a film about what crime breeds. It focuses on how split-second decisions can truly affect your life, even many years down the line, and it’s this that elevates it from a fun thriller to a haunting and emotionally resonant character drama.
The performances intensify the dramatic impact, most notably that of the ever-reliable Gosling who brings a nice touch of fragility to the tough-guy persona. Similarly the endearingly dopey Mendelsohn who was terrific in Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly is as good as he’s ever been as Luke’s gaunt companion. Two of the best performances are from newcomers Emory Cohen and Chronicle’s own Dane DeHaan who is shaping up to be a truly great young talent.
The only minor weak link in an otherwise exemplary pack is Cooper. Although he was brilliant enough to shun the cynics and impress the Academy in Silver Linings Playbook he does feel ever so slightly out of his depth as the morally confused cop Avery. This may be partly due to a fundamental problem with his character who dominates the film’s middle section. His part of the story feels a little unfocused and padded out and it’s never quite clear how we’re meant to feel about his actions.
The story is by no means perfect and it often relies on contrivances and coincidences. Some of the characters’ motivations are sometimes underdeveloped and seem to come out of left field. For instance, Luke is opposed to the idea of robbing banks to begin with and it doesn’t seem to take much for Robin to change his mind.
Despite its shortcomings The Place Beyond the Pines amounts to something that is utterly absorbing. It boasts a mighty cast, some stunning set-pieces and a beautifully melancholic soundtrack that plucks away at your heartstrings. But it definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s admittedly a slow-burner and die-hard Gosling groupies may be tempted to bail midway through.