I was interested to see Place beyond the pines, from the director of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance. The stellar cast was enticing enough, Ryan Gosling who seems to be in everything recently, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper and the two younger budding actors Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen.
Spoiler Alert: This review reveals plot and character twists.
A surprisingly stand out actor from this cast was Ben Mendelsohn. Ben has had a busy career with roles in television and films since the late 80’s. I remember him from Vertical limit which I saw when I was about 13. Then further down the track he had a role in one of my favourite Australian television shows The secret life of us, and more recently in Girls. Ben gave his character such a quirky, intriguing charm that even though he was a minor character I wanted to see more of him. I was happy to see him reappear in the third act if only for a few short scenes.
I was engaged and riveted by the film for about an hour. In fact I was really gripped by the story and invested in the characters until Ryan Gosling’s character Luke died. The death of his character was such a shock and a bold and interesting writing choice.
I like being surprised by a film like that, and killing off the lead not even half way through was a big shock factor. In fact when Luke is shot and falls out the window I had already supposed that he survived and was making a getaway albeit slowly.
Then the next thing you see is Luke lying lifeless on the pavement below as an ominous pool of blood quickly spreads from his blonde skull.
The introduction of Bradley Cooper’s character, Avery Cross was the beginning of the second third of the film and the story took on a new lead from that point.
This segment while still interesting was less gripping than the first third. There was the introduction of the crooked cops, Avery's guilt ridden struggle and eventual manipulation to gain the position he wanted. There was again some brilliant acting from Cooper. His portrayal of utter speechlessness inside his therapists office was poignant and I can see why many critics are panning this as one of his best performances to date.
The film skipped forward 15 years and began the third segment and in my opinion the strangest final piece of a film I’ve seen in a while. This is where Cianfrance lost his rhythm. Suddenly we have these new characters, two teenage boys that as an audience we have no emotional attachment to at this point. Watching this completely new story developing with two characters that I didn’t know or care about was baffling to me so far into the film.
Then to really accelerate things Cohen and DeHaan’s characters become friends when they serendipitously attend the same high school.
This final piece of the story felt sadly contrived and uninspired. The events of the film up to that point had been at least within the realms of credibility and suitable within the limits of the cinematic world. But the resulting few scenes of the film find DeHaan - Jason, taking on an amateur hunt for information about his biological father, a figure whom up to that point, he has had very little knowledge or connection but now for reasons barely explored, feels compelled to redeem.
Jason kidnaps Avery and they drive to a place beyond the pines. At this point there is too much conflicting story for the potentially gripping scene to be anything but annoying. The fact that this kid is so enraged to learn that his outlaw father, the bank robber, was shot and killed in a police chase, doesn’t quite add up.
But where the story and writing of this film falters, the cinematography and acting excel. Cianfrance was adamant about shooting the bank robbery/get away scenes in one long sequence shot, a risky decision that could have been brought down by many factors, not the least of which was the novice motorcyclist Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s trainer Rick Miller - stuntman from Batman begins - commented 8 weeks prior to the films shooting on Ryan’s performance, rating it as a 3 out of 10 the expectation of rising to a 4 at best by the time shooting began. When the 8 week training was up, he had reached an astonishing level of skill and Miller ranked him as an 8 out of 10. Without question these long shot scenes would have failed without the investment and fortitude of Gosling. Watching these bank scenes right from the entry to the point his motorbike is safely hidden away in the getaway vehicle is exhilarating.
Any fan of Gosling’s will be familiar with his brooding, apathetic traits that he has injected into past characters. Eva Mendes does what she can with her few scenes and portrays a conflicted woman and Bradley Cooper departs from his cool guy, affected character to give us an insecure, slightly immature father and cop, in perhaps one of his first roles since his days as Will in Alias where he has played less of the tough guy.
It felt as though the momentum had really run dry by about halftime and it was disappointing after such a strong build up. There was too much of a slow meandering as a long, convoluted story was trampled into 140 minutes and too many characters left with only the surface of their story scraped and a brief examination of the themes of fatherhood and fate. Cianfrance ultimately draws out the best of his brilliant cast, their acting carries the film to its weak ending without losing the audience along the way.