Niagara Gazette — Every now and then a film comes along that makes you glad you love movies. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be alive. “The Place Beyond The Pines” is that kind of film. It’s vibrant and energetic; a little ragged around the edges, but so utterly filled with the harsh cold breath of danger that the riskier it becomes, the more alluring it is.
The audience finds itself complicit in the misdeeds of its characters. It shares in the anger of a father driven to physical violence by the new man in his child’s life. It invites the audience to hope banks will be robbed successfully. Its emotions are so knife-edged, that because of the film’s take on moral choices, on what’s right or wrong, when a character points a gun at a politician begging for his life in a damp patch of woods on the outskirts of town, you’ll be forgiven for thinking: “shoot him.”
“The Place Beyond The Pines,” directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a gritty movie that brings to mind the best screen melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s. Hollywood made these films in its sleep. When they were good, they were very, very good. One director of that era who really knew how to entice the audience, and make them complicit in a crime, was Alfred Hitchcock.
Cianfrance’s film is set in rough and tumble Schenectady, whose name in the Mohawk language is loosely translated as “the place beyond the pines.” On a number of occasions, characters head into the woods where they will make important decisions. Cianfrance and his co-screenwriters, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, have created believable ethical dilemmas that highlight the complex philosophical traps that ensnare essentially decent people. Regarding their movie, these are traps from which the characters are ill-quipped to escape.
At the start, we meet Ryan Gosling as Luke, a muscled, blonde, tattooed motorcycle daredevil in a seedy traveling carnival. He and two other daredevils spin around a steel cage to the whoops of crowds who are clearly not living high. Simple, gravity-defying entertainment is what they seek.
Upon returning to Schenectady, he learns that he has fathered a child with a local woman named Romina (Eva Mendes). Luke wants to do right by their son. And, he still has feelings for her. He decides to give up the traveling sideshow and stay in town. Romina is wary of this development. She’s in a healthy relationship with a new boyfriend, a fully employed fellow who loves her and the baby. His name is Kofi (Mahershala Ali), and he’s decidedly unhappy with Luke’s return.
Luke is broke. He can barely support himself, let alone help out with his son. He takes a fly-by-night job with a mechanic friend of his, a human squirrel named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), whose shop is on a country road near the woods. Robin is a weird one, a guy half in the legitimate world and half outside of it. He suggests an old-fashioned bank robbery that will utilize Luke’s motorcycle skills.
The riveting movie will then build from a series of robberies that lead to an encounter between Luke and a cop named Avery, played by Bradley Cooper. Through all of this, there is sexual tension between Romina and Luke. Then marital problems will arise between Avery and his wife (Rose Byrne). The police department angle leads us to more cops, including a scary bully played by Ray Liotta. Some of these guys have less than honest intentions and will cross the line of proper behavior. Eventually, Avery, whose father (Harris Yulin) is a beloved retired judge, will feel the pull of politics.
All of the dynamics that lead to his decision to run for office creates a haunting third act that involves not only Avery’s son A.J., but also Luke’s son Jason. The high school students, both angry and moody, are played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan.
The three main stories told in “The Place Beyond The Pines,” which has a unique and strong narrative structure, are connected through the unpredictable nature of the film’s characters. No one seems to start out bad. But the unsettling, and sometimes startling developments, rip good behavior from the hands of people who should know better. The link between fathers and sons carries this outstanding movie to its fitting conclusion. We see that actions have consequences. History repeats itself, but history can be changed by righteous thinking. You may be surprised by who makes the smartest decision.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” is the best movie of the new year. Everything about it is exciting, including the acting, which is top-to-bottom exceptional. Don’t miss it.Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.