Finally, the dismal spring season has given us the first truly awesome film of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines is a tragedy told in three movements. It's a careful portrait of two men and their families, the choices they make and the consequences of those choices.
The film stars Ryan Gosling as Handsome Luke, a motorcycle stuntman who rolls through Synecdoche, N.Y., with the carnival only to discover that a girl he ran around with once, Romina (Eva Mendes), had his baby a year ago and she and another man are raising the kid without him.
Desperate times call for desperate bank robberies. Handsome Luke has a run-in with a police officer named Avery (Bradley Cooper) and the narrative flips. Now the story belongs to Avery, as he tries to reconcile his newly acquired hero status with his own guilt and a corrupt police force. The story takes a third turn that isn't a surprise, per se, but having gone into the theater knowing nothing of the plot, I found this final narrative shift at once jolting and satisfying, so I will hold my tongue rather than deprive you of that feeling.
This is director Derek Cianfrance's second widely distributed film, after 2010's Blue Valentine, a story about a failed marriage that's so true and profound it's almost painful to watch. As good as Blue Valentine is, The Place Beyond the Pines is even better, because the stakes are raised.
In the opening scene, we trail Handsome Luke as he takes a long walk through the crowd and into the big tent, where we discover that he's the star of the show. He puts on a helmet, gets on his motorcycle and then he and two other guys ride their bikes into a big metal sphere where they circle each other at lightning fast speeds. What's happening on-screen is thrilling and legitimately dangerous. Legend has it that a cameraman got squashed by an errant motorcycle during production and was knocked unconscious. That's what I'm talking about! Most action sequences these days are safe and boring. Nobody ever gets hurt fighting a tennis ball in front of a green screen.
The bank robberies are violent and jarring, and like the opening sequence, they're done in uninterrupted takes. The chase scenes are reminiscent of the stuff you see late at night on "Cops." "The suspect has a flat tire," goes the crackle of the police radio. The motorcycle makes a sharp turn into a cemetery before Luke crashes into a partition and tries to hobble off pathetically on foot. His desperation is heartbreaking and palpable.
It's not easy to make a movie that looks and feels real. Once you've achieved that, it's even harder to tell a story that's both relatable and unexpected, with characters who do bad things and still manage to evoke our sympathies. A lot of the credit here goes to the strong performances. Cooper and Gosling give us real tears and holy hell, they have something to cry about.
The Place Beyond the Pines is the apex of masculine, American cinema. In one moment, there's a confrontation between Luke and Romina's boyfriend Kofi (played by Mahershala Ali). Kofi wants Luke out of his house. He tries to stand up to him, but he's afraid. The alpha wolf wins this round, but who's the winner overall? This exchange has something important to say about what it means to be a good man. Is it about brute strength, or is it knowing when to stand down? How are fathers supposed to model the right way to live for their sons?
After 140 minutes, the film isn't any closer to an answer, and yet it never feels long. I want everyone to go see it, go home and think about it, and then go see it again.
The Place Beyond the Pines continues at the Wilma.