Just about anyone who sees director Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines should agree that Cianfance is a talented and ambitious filmmaker. Cianfrance's third feature -- a look at three generations of men in downtrodden Schenectady, N.Y. -- has moments that pulsate with the energy of a filmmaker driven to infuse his story with vividly realized life.
If you had a chance to meet Cianfrance (as I have on several occasions dating back to 1998), you'd know that he's a principled filmmaker who tries (and often succeeds) to wring hard-won truth from every moment in this films.
Co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, Cianfrance's latest movie has plenty to recommend it, even though it can't quite match the ambition that went into creating what the director calls a "triptych," a look at the impact of fathers on sons in three loosely related acts.
The movie's shortcomings can be attributed to a bit of imaginative depletion in its second act, to a casting misstep in its third, and, perhaps to a generalized over-emphasis on authenticity of milieu, sometimes at the expense of enduring insight.
That's not to say that Cianfrance's achievement is negligible. There's enough good work in The Place Beyond the Pines (the Mohawk name for Schenectady) to make it a worthy follow-up to Cianfrance's widely praised Blue Valentine. For the most part, Cianfrance finds ways to encourage his cast to plunge headlong into risky emotional terrain.
Like Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines benefits from the presence of Ryan Gosling, who this time plays Luke, a heavily tattooed motorcycle stunt rider who -- during an annual visit to Schenectady with a carnival -- learns that he has a son with a woman (Eva Mendes) with whom he had a fling.
With the movie's bravura opening shot, Cianfrance makes it clear that Luke's life is going nowhere. We follow Luke into a metal cage where he rides his motorcycle in circles, a death defying carnival stunt that serves as a metaphor for a life of trapped fury.
When Luke learns that he has a son, he quits the carnival and commits himself to taking care of the boy, a task for which he's ill-suited.
At a loss about how to function in "normal" life, Luke's future changes when he meets Robin (a scary Ben Mendelsohn), a mechanic who introduces Luke to the fine art of bank robbery. Luke enters banks, robs them and speeds away on his motorcycle. He eludes police by driving his bike into Robin's waiting truck, and disappearing from the roads.
Cianfrance, who likes to work in comfort-shattering close-ups, keeps this section of the movie percolating, right up until its violent conclusion.
This portion of movie benefits in no small part from Gosling's trademark edginess, as well from strong work by Mendelsohn (familiar from the brilliant Australian neo-noir Animal Kingdom). Equally good are Mendes and Mahershala Ali, who plays the man who lives with Mendes's Romina. Unlike Luke, Kofi has more than fantasy ideas about how to care for a son.
The movie's second section features a strong performance by Bradley Cooper, most recently seen in Sliver Linings Playbook. Cooper, who made Beyond the Pines prior to Silver Linings Playbook, plays a Schenectady cop who becomes a DA and who later runs for the office of New York attorney general. A confrontation with Luke brings him into the story.
Bradley's good, but the movie loses imaginative steam as it immerses itself in what seems an overly familiar story about police corruption that features an appearance by a menacing Ray Liotta, who portrays Deluca, a cop who introduces Cooper's Avery to the world of corruption.
In this second segment, the screenplay raises issues of betrayal, ambition and guilt that don't break much new ground, but allow Cianfrance to sustain a mood of encroaching dread.
Some of the late-picture problems result from a crucial piece of miscasting. In the third act, Emory Cohen portrays Avery's son AJ, a high school kid who has adopted the linguistic style of a wannabe gangsta. It's not easy to believe that he's the son of an aspiring politician and of his mother, a minimally seen Rose Byrne. Cohen's performance proves distracting enough to undermine some of the movie's credibility.
Cianfrance does better with Luke's son, played by the gifted Dane DeHaan, who you may have seen in a segment of HBO's In Treatment. DeHaan captures the turmoil of a high school kid who's beginning to confront difficult truths about his family history.
It would not be fair to say that The Place Beyond the Pines unravels in the late going. But it can't afford the loss of credibility that accompanies its melodramatic and somewhat self-conscious conclusion.
Cianfrance can't entirely sustain the movie's intensity over its two hour- and 20-minute length, and the screenplay probably could have benefited from a healthy dose of nuance. I hope, by now, you've gotten the point: The Place Beyond the Pines is far from perfect, but when Cianfrance connects, he tends to connect in a big way.