Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines takes narrative risks that few films dare to attempt and executes them with utmost skill. The multifaceted collision of stunt biker turned bank robber Luke (Ryan Gosling) with rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) unfolds in unexpected, wondrous ways, and because of this rare approach the film is a challenge to discuss without spoiling its sense of discovery.
One workable route is to describe it as three movies in one, though the intricacies of the chapters and what might be the most brilliant subversion of star-driven expectations in over 60 years give the film far greater significance. For these assets and numerous others, it’s soundly the year’s best film thus far and a high mark that the calendar’s remaining slate will have a difficult time besting.
Told through gorgeous digital photography that heightens the despair of Schenectady, New York’s urban grittiness and the danger that awaits amidst the rugged beauty of its surrounding nature, Gosling’s tattooed carnival rider takes control of his transient life. Upon learning that he has a son with Romina (Eva Mendes) from a fling on his last stop through town, Luke experiences a visible epiphany and vows to stick around, provide for his sudden family, and lure them from Romina’s boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali).
The pain and yearning that permeate these scenes are extraordinary and hit harder once Luke decides to procure said funds by knocking off banks with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). This fateful choice leads to a gripping chase sequence in which Gosling and Cooper do their own impressive stunt driving and a turn of events that deeply haunts the rest of the film. To divulge more would be unfair to the immense revelations that await, moments of such unexpected power and agony that dubbing them “Shakespearean” is certainly merited.
At times, the weight of the material makes The Place Beyond the Pines seem like a true self-contained trilogy, as if an entire afternoon has passed in the darkness of the theater watching these fathers and sons enact their multi-generational tragedy. Even so, the material is so rich and the primary players are effortlessly hitting such lofty levels that the investment is time well spent.
Never is this notion more true than in the third chapter, one no less captivating than the previous two and perhaps more so considering the elevated stakes from years of pain coming to a head. The drama on display in this concluding bit is of such gut-wrenching intensity that it feels like the film has overshot its advertised runtime by a significant margin. Considering how the other sections came through with notable payoffs of their own, however, the promise of a third peak keeps the proceedings enticing, and in the end Cianfrance doesn’t disappoint.
Rated R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference.