Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines is an emotive film that explores the actors' motivations to create, preserve and destroy life. The film's ambitious storytelling requires an escalating tempo, a stirring score and a handful of nuanced performances from its cast. Luckily, Cianfrance and his star-studded cast are more than up to the challenge.
The film is the story of two intersecting families. Pines opens with Luke's (Ryan Gosling) nightly performances in a traveling circus. The tattooed stunt bike rider travels from town to town, entertaining locals with his daredevil act. Once he becomes aware that a previous fling on the road with Romina (Eva Mendes) has led to a child, Luke begins to take his responsibilities more seriously.
In the hopes of providing for his son, Luke takes a local job and begins developing a relationship with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Mendelsohn, once again, shines in a complementary role, turning in a pitch-perfect performance as a flawed loner who serves as a mentor of sorts to Luke. Unable to earn enough money, Luke takes Robin up on his offer to show him the bank robbing ropes. At this point in the film, Cianfrance transitions from high angle shots of the lush upstate New York countryside to shaky, hand-held camera work, which effectively changes the tone and pace. The bank robbery scenes give the film a frenetic and adrenaline-laden boost midway through, leading to the introduction of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a local cop who finds himself between Luke and a clean getaway.
The next hour of the film explores the decisions and actions of Luke and Avery through the prism of their fatherhood. Their decisions are molded, in many ways, by their new-found appreciation for life in the form of their sons. The story transitions to Avery's life as an over-educated police officer in a less than savory department. Avery's struggles with his job provide depth rarely seen in this genre and force the audience to question a situation that is often presented plainly in other films. Cooper's mesmerizing performance carries the plot to current day, completing a 15-year journey which sets his and Luke's sons on a collision course.
The third and final act of the film brings the story back to its quiet and poignant roots, complete with the heartrending piano score of Mike Patton's "Snow Angel." The end result for Cianfrance is a stellar follow-up to his 2010 hit Blue Valentine. Just as Blue Valentine served as an example of how people can misguidedly cling to relationships once their hopeful beginnings crumble, Pines illustrates the importance people place on new life and the lengths they'll go to ensure its safety. Thanks to a wide theatrical release, Gosling and Cooper should see nominations pour in for their memorable performances in this taut, emotional, and often sorrowful film.