By Alan Scherstuhl
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The Place Beyond the Pines opens with a close-up of Ryan Gosling's chiseled abdomen and heavy breathing on the soundtrack. Then, in a single, five-minute tracking shot, we follow Gosling's character, Luke, across a fairground and into the tent where he and two other stunt motorcycle performers ride their bikes into a large sphere known as the "globe of death." Around they go, defying gravity and mortality — and, one assumes, proving something to themselves. It's a pretty apt metaphor for most of what follows in this tortured study of masculine ethos across the generations, of failed fathers and the sons doomed to become them — all circling about in one big, existential steel cage.
If that sounds heavy-handed, well, yes, it is, though one of the fascinating and frustrating things about The Place Beyond the Pines is that you can't always tell if the testosterone-amped sturm und drang is meant sincerely, or as a deadpan deflating of testosterone-amped sturm und drang. Certainly, Gosling's character verges on parody: Decked out in cutoff heavy-metal T-shirts, with a peroxide-blond dye job and a heavily tattooed body, he suggests a trailer-park Prince Valiant, a pubescent fantasy of toughness. And when Luke speaks, Gosling uses a soft, wounded half-whisper that tells us this is all some kind of put-on, that this brooding hulk just wants to be loved. It's a close variation on the role Gosling played to stronger effect in Nicolas Winding Refn's existential Hollywood thriller, Drive, where it was clear the character was meant to be an abstraction (hell, he didn't even have a name). Here the setting is the more pragmatic working-class town of Schenectady, and the director is Derek Cianfrance, who previously collaborated with Gosling on another portrait of male ego: the marital drama Blue Valentine.
Luke's story is but one of three that Cianfrance sets out to tell—not overlapping à la Babel and Crash, but rather laid out end-to-end, like links in an infernal cosmic chain. Reeling from the discovery that a casual fling with a waitress (Eva Mendes, one of the film's mostly expendable women) has resulted in an infant son, Luke decides to quit the carny circuit and, with a little prompting from a local mechanic (Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn), takes up the more lucrative profession of armed robbery. Their m.o. consists of Luke knocking over banks, speeding away from the scene on his bike and right into the back of Mendelsohn's waiting cargo truck. But when Luke starts to get a little too daring for his own good, his partner blanches, warning, "If you ride like lightning, you're gonna crash like thunder"—a line that sounds like it was salvaged from the floor of the Talladega Nights writers' room.
Luke does crash, figuratively speaking, into rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who's clearly working on his own set of self-identification and daddy issues. Avery is a father, too, of a boy roughly the same age as Luke's, and if you think that bit of plotting won't eventually be milked for its full Jacobean portent, you'd best leave before the movie reaches Act Three: "15 Years Later." In the meantime, Cooper effectively takes over the picture, as the mood shifts from brooding romantic melodrama to terse police procedural. Cooper's terrific, too, oozing raw charisma and callow self-interest, a dangerous combination in a precinct rife with dirty cops.
A graduate of the University of Colorado film school, where he studied with avant-garde masters Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, Cianfrance is a gifted stylist with a penchant for the mythic. His best film remains his debut, Brother Tied (1998), a modern riff on the Cain and Abel story set in small-town Colorado, brilliantly shot in black and white and widely screened at festivals (including Sundance), but never distributed and now almost impossible to see. The Place Beyond the Pines is a much bigger canvas, and scene by scene it can be riveting, in part because of the meticulous widescreen camerawork and also because of Cianfrance's sure touch with actors, who manage to rise above the ultimately thin and repetitive material.
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