As the showing I attended of "The Place Beyond the Pines" — director Derek Cianfrance's moody, ambitious, new crime-drama — came to an end, I couldn't help overhearing the conversation happening amongst the college-age group sitting behind me. One was explaining to his friends that while the film wasn't what he expecting, he thought it was "really good." He went on to say that he was still processing the film, trying to piece together what exactly it was trying to say. "Yeah," one of his friends chimed in, "it probably has a really deep meaning." I don't think I could come up with a better explanation for this flawed, but fascinating, film if I tried.
Cianfrance takes a novelistic approach to his small-scale epic about fathers and sons, the choices they make, and the legacies they leave behind. Told in triptych, the film is split into three connected storylines. In the first, Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a talented motorcyclist making a meager living working in a stunt show for a traveling fair. After one of his shows, he's approached by Romina (a slightly frumped up Eva Mendes, giving a natural, understated performance), a diner waitress with whom he had a fling the last time the fair passed through town. It turns out she had a son as a result, who she never told Luke about. Instead of turning tail and running away, he makes the decision to quit the fair and stick around. He wants to take responsibility and provide for his family the way his own father never did. Unfortunately, he decides that the best way to do that quickly and easily is to start robbing banks.
At a crucial moment, he crosses paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young, too-smart-for-his-own-good cop who gets injured in the line of duty. We then follow Avery's story, as he's raised up as a hero as a result of his efforts. His father, a district attorney, encourages Avery to capitalize on the notoriety and transition to a career in politics. Avery soon learns that his decisions open a number of windows of opportunity, while slamming shut several others. The final, most interesting, but also most flawed section of the film jumps in time 15 years to find the two men's sons (played by Dan DeHaan of "Chronicle" and Emory Cohen of TV's "Smash"), now teenagers, as they're beginning to make choices of their own, setting down the paths that will come to define them as they grow into adulthood.
Cianfrance's previous film was "Blue Valentine," an intimate drama observing the slow implosion of the relationship between a married couple, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and the director has a gift for getting rich, textured performances from his actors. Here he's telling a much bigger story, admirable in its ambition and scope. Gosling gives another great performance as the stoic, brooding type that he's so good at playing, and his segment is the strongest of the film. The characterization is so sharply drawn and richly detailed that it's a little disappointing that the story loses some of its focus as it moves forward. It balances this out, however, by becoming increasingly thrilling as its ambition becomes more apparent.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" has a scruffy sort of beauty to it, and while it ultimately offers no thesis to the story it weaves, I was OK with that. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the film is to say that the point at which the movie ends could easily mark the beginning to another that I'd gladly buy a ticket to see.