Last week Ryan Gosling switched his racecar for a motorcycle to play carnival stuntman Luke Glanton in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines.
Luke is getting by just fine on carnival wages until he learns that ex-flame Romina (Eva Mendes) is bringing up a child he didn’t know he’d fathered. Despite his rough exterior, Luke is gripped by a sense of responsibility, so he quits the stunt job in order to stay in town and support Romina and baby Jason financially and emotionally.
A chance encounter with mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) provides him with more work, and a partner with the expertise to help him pull off motorcycle bank heists.
Comparisons to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) are inevitable, but Cianfrance’s film doesn’t suffer for it. The Place Beyond the Pines is just as stylish and artsy as Drive, featuring dizzying first-person shooting, but it also boasts a better story and stronger characterisation.
Despite his poster-boy status, Ryan Gosling doesn’t feature as much as you might think (though the first 30 seconds will be particularly pleasing to some). However, this is no bad thing, as Luke’s drama is matched by another plot, following ambitious beat cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).
Avery’s appearance heralds a real turning point in the narrative, and as he finds himself caught up in a world of corrupt policing and skewed morality the film becomes less achingly sentimental than the opening 40 minutes. Ray Liotta’s (GoodFellas) cameo as dodgy-cop-ringleader, however, is painfully two-dimensional, and certainly one of the film’s worst-written roles.
Cooper one-ups his much-lauded Silver Linings Playbook appearance, and although he once again finds himself in the therapist’s chair, this is a tonally very different performance, of a potentially less likeable character. It also afforded him, along with Gosling, the opportunity to perform his own stunts.
The script, co-written by Cianfrance, makes unnecessarily pointed explanation of the obvious parallels between Luke and Avery’s young families, and the narrative is too finely balanced to come close to being realistic.
However, the photography steers clear of overindulgent, lingering shots of attractive faces. The costume, hair and make-up teams have combined to create pleasingly realistic looking characters; Luke may be a badass, but his dress sense is questionable at best, and Eva Mendes is fittingly gaunt for a strung-out mother struggling to make ends meet.
This is arguably the best performance of Mendes’ career, although not the first to see her hop on the back of a motorcycle (she saddled up with Nicholas Cage in 2007’s lame action fantasy Ghost Rider).
The film’s three acts are very distinctly separated, but these narratives are better connected than in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which famously utilised a similar technique. The final segment, a ‘fifteen years later’ flash-forward, threatens to be a simple coda featuring a predictable tête à tête, but actually becomes a much more developed narrative, just as explosive as the earlier story but providing an ideal conclusion.
Relative newcomers Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan (who will next appear as Harry Osborn in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man sequel), also deliver finely-tuned, promising performances.
The tripartite structure ensures engagement throughout, and Cianfrance is able to deal with a lot, and well, in 140 minutes. The acts are tied together not just through the characters’ connections, but also visually through repeated camera angles emphasised by Mike Patton’s addictive score.
The Place Beyond the Pines, despite the clumsy title which lacks significance, is a far more enjoyable watch, and a more skilfully crafted work, than the gritty and brutal Blue Valentine.