Derek Cianfrance re-teams with his Blue Valentine star in this generational crime tale that is broken up into three individual stories. Each one stands on their own as an independent tale and the first two could have actually been expanded into full films on their own. Ryan Gosling stars as traveling carnival performer, he does one of those motorcycle balls of death, who decides to stay back in a town when he discovers he has fathered a child with a local girl in Schenectady. Turning to crime, Gosling crosses paths with Bradley Cooper who plays an aspiring local cop. Outside criminals Cooper has his own problems within the police force as corruption is running rampant; think of Cooper as a less nerdy Ed Exley. The third act surrounds both of these guys’ kids and I will leave that topic until later in this review.
I can’t praise the film much higher in the opening segment surrounding Gosling’s Luke as Cianfrance captures and creates a world around that we can believe and feels authentic. Luke turns to crime out of necessity, but quickly grows to love the game and that star can only rise so high. The relationships Luke forms at every turn are compelling and both Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn are great working off one another. Mendelsohn plays a local that takes in Luke and I would have watched these two for far more screen time than they are given. The relationship between Gosling, his kid’s Mom (played by Eva Mendes) and her live in boyfriend is really interesting as well and I would have loved to have spent even more time watching this relationship evolve. That is what I meant that these first two stories could stand alone as their own films and I gladly would have watched the two hour version of this story.
Bradley Cooper’s segment, as young cop Avery, is almost as good as Gosling’s, even if the story is a little stereotypical for a cop drama. I think those stereotypes only stick out because Cianfrance is forced to embrace them to tell this story as quickly and effectively as he does, but again I think if this is blown out to a full film it succeeds even better as it stands now. Cooper is great as Avery and while I compared him to Ed Exley he still carves out his own character. Ray Liotta and Robert Clohessy are a pair of excellent foils in the department and I was dying for more time with them. I could say the same for Bruce Greenwood and Rose Byrne as well and the story seemed ripe to expand out and get into all of these relationships further. I particularly would have liked to see a bit more of Avery rising through the ranks before where we see him after the time jump into the final act.
This is where the film gets into trouble as I think the story takes an ill advised turn with weak character motivations to support it. *Minor Spoilers The Rest Of This Paragraph* This act follows the sons of Avery and Luke, AJ and Jason respectively, and while I appreciated a lot of the symmetry given between Jason and his dad (the repeat shot of them both on the road is worth the inclusion of this act alone) I can’t buy either of the motivations of these characters based on the information we are given. AJ comes from a now broken home, but even from a rebellious teenager angle his attitude doesn’t seem believable. Jason is even less believable though as the decisions he makes I can’t buy one bit. Mahershala Ali seems like a fantastic adoptive father to Jason, and he has been his father since birth, and that is why I can’t buy the decisions he makes near the end of this film. I appreciate the attempt at some poetic symmetry between father and son, but Jason has a great family and father already and it seems disingenuous to his family to care so much about Luke who had zero effect on him. Plus, the doom and gloom surrounding all the unnecessary drama felt way too forced and I would have much preferred they just rolled a happier, shorter, version where the sons meet and allow Cooper the closure he needs; even if you lose all of the cool symmetry.
Don’t let the last act’s weakness scare you away though as Cianfrance crafts a thrilling action heist film and solid cop drama in the film’s earlier stories. The biking is captured in a way that I have never really seen before, visceral and energetic, and I can’t say enough how I would have loved to see these stories blown out into full fledged films. Cianfrance’s craft is sharper still in only his second feature and the opening shot of the film is one for the ages; I can’t wait till he gets an actual budget. His actors are great, besides the kid who plays AJ, and when one of your biggest complaints of the film is you wish you had more character time you know he is doing something right.
The Place Beyond the Pines is worth your ticket this weekend, just be prepared for the weak final act of the film. The weakness is purely on a story level and is independent to the section itself. You will find satisfying conclusions for both of the earlier stories and great acting in both as well. Gosling continues to excel under Cianfrance and I really like Cooper in his role as well. Without the final act this might have been an easy contender for one of the best films of the year, but as a whole it will have to settle for being pretty damn good; not a bad consolation.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a B