Ryan Gosling was in high demand this year from directors who had already used him to great effect. You had Nicolas Winding Refn botch his second chance with the actor in the abominable ‘Only God Forgives’, but Derek Cianfrance (who almost directed Gosling to an Oscar nomination in ‘Blue Valentine’) made the most of his second experience with the actor to give us a very strong character, performance, film…whatever you want to call it. While ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ has its faults (and we’ll get to those in a minute), the film has a presence that is FELT, and both director and actor(s) do their best to create, maintain and sustain that presence.
‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is essentially a three-part story; a tapestry piece of sorts that has stronger ties than your average ‘interwoven’ storyline. You have the first half, which focuses on a young and reckless motorcycle stunt rider who has becomes aware of his young son only to walk into a sticky situation when he realizes that his baby’s mother has moved on. Determined to provide for his child and win back his baby-mamma, he turns to a life of crime.
This is where the film’s second act picks up, where we have a newly promoted police officer dealing with the consequences (both moral and legal) of a shootout that caused the death of the aforementioned motorcycle driver. Plagued with a sharply ambiguous guilt (is it real guilt over his actions or more remorse over the consequences?), this cop finds himself being taken advantage of by cops on the force, a punching bag and maneuverable pawn piece until he takes matters into his own hands and carves out his future with the press of a ‘record’ button.
And then we are shot forward over a decade to a school cafeteria where this cop and this deceased motorcycle rider are reunited in part due to their sons, who happen to strike up an unlikely friendship.
Each part has its strengths, but the film does undergo a gradual decline with each passing section. The first part is by far the most inspired and it sets up the film for a real nice progression of character development, which DOES carry through into the second section (and, surprise-surprise, Bradley Cooper gives the best performance in the film) in a great way as we watch this cop deal with his current predicament (and honestly, the character of Avery Cross is such an interesting one), and despite the clichéd ‘dirty cop’ angle, the second act survives on the strength of Cooper’s portrayal of EVERY crevice of this man’s identity. Still, the film is almost uprooted completely by the third act, which feels like such a lazy tack-on in so many ways. First, the idea that the two sons would meet by pure coincidence feels very uninspired, but the primary idea of this film (the whole ‘sins of the father’ mantra) is force fed in a rather ridiculous manner (especially that final scene) that it feels sadly dishonest. Derek Cianfrance had a great opportunity to build a marvelous character study (which is ‘almost’ did) wrapped in a truly inspired prose, but his prose suffers from lack of originality when it comes to ‘making it all work’. As individual parts, maybe (although outside of Dane DeHaan’s performance, I really see no redemption for that third act), but as a whole the film starts to feel drug out and uneven; scattered even.
And still, the impact is felt and that presence lingers from frame to frame thanks to breathtaking cinematography and visual scope, and those tailored and uniform (so cohesive) performances. Gosling, Cooper and DeHaan really connect from act to act, anchoring their segments in a real grasp of identity. Even DeHaan, who has to muddle through some really trite character developments (the fight scene, the kidnapping and the final scene all reek of ‘obvious’), finds ways to FEEL through each moment in a way that earns our trust. You believe him, even if his story makes little sense.
But I don’t think I can praise Bradley Cooper enough, and I really didn’t expect to EVER say that. I still remember being baffled throughout most of last year’s awards season and being in complete denial about Cooper’s Oscar chances. Like, how is this guy suddenly a good actor? Seriously, he’s brilliant here. He understands the small things, the slight details that color in a complete character. The best thing about the character of Avery is that he is a complete and total fake; a self-promoting jerk who NEEDS to be loved and respected, yet Cooper never shies away from making him human and exposing his frailty in a very honest progression of emotions and reactions.
At the end of the day, this is a good film that could have been great. I give this a solid B. It’s not really close to an A, thanks to that closing, but the strengths of the performances and the technical aspects (and really, the ending is more of a letdown than an abomination) raise this up and make it a very ‘good’ film that you should see. Oscar won’t bite at this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan get critics mentions for this along with their other works (‘American Hustle’ and ‘Kill Yoru Darlings’ respectively). DeHaan may even snag a few Breakthrough mentions, unless Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o truly do have those completely sewn up.