Review: 'The Place Beyond the Pines' one of the year's early best

Published: Friday, April 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 7:47 p.m.

Stop me if this makes you have deja vu: Ryan Gosling as a brooding loner who, desperate to help those he cares about, goes on a crime spree and ends up in over his head. If this rings a bell, you probably saw “Drive” two years ago, and the trailers make it look like “The Place Beyond the Pines” is that movie with the cars swapped for motorcycles and urban Los Angeles replaced by upstate New York.


‘The Place Beyond the Pines'

Rated: R
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta

But don't be fooled. While it starts out like “Drive,” just shy of the hour mark, the movie reinvents itself as a meditation on the heavy weight of past mistakes and how it affects two fathers estranged from their sons. This is a bold, big-idea movie, and despite its ponderous start, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is one of the best releases so far this year.

Our setting, as mentioned, is rural New York, specifically Schenectady (the name of the town is an Indian word that translates to the movie's title). Gosling is Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stunt rider in a traveling carnival. We see Luke meet up with Romina (Eva Mendes), a down-on-her-luck waitress, after one of his performances, then flash forward one year. Luke returns and discovers he now has a young son, sparking an attack of conscience. Unfortunately, Luke has no real skills to speak of, other than an affinity for motorcycles, so he teams up with a strung-out ex-con named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob banks.

This first section of “The Place Beyond the Pines” is easily its weakest; Gosling preens and poses rather than acts, Mendes is unconvincing, and the robbery-with-good-intentions plot has been done too many times before. It's not without its charms (Mendelsohn steals every scene he's in with his low-life charisma, and the robberies are tense and exciting), but there's a sense that the movie is spinning its wheels.

This all take place before Luke has a fateful encounter with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) after a robbery.

Without spoiling too much, Avery becomes our new main character and the movie finds its momentum. Avery also has an infant son, and while there are additional subplots about police corruption and his eventual campaign for attorney general, the real focus is on their relationship and seeing if Avery will avoid repeating Luke's mistakes.

The two families are inextricably linked, and when the sons end up as high school classmates 15 years later, the accumulated weight of both families' guilt comes crashing down on them.

If this all sounds a bit ponderous and a tad contrived, it is. But it works because writer/director Derek Cianfrance paints with a broad emotional brush without letting it go overboard into soap opera histrionics. He's also aided by a truly phenomenal cast; everyone involved has to cover a broad acting spectrum, and they all earn their payday.

The best work, believe it or not, comes from Cooper. Between his Oscar nomination for “Silver Linings Playbook” and his work here, he's quickly shedding his image as merely one of the bros from “The Hangover.” Cooper has a great deal of natural charisma, which he ably employs, but he's equally adept at showcasing darker, more sinister sides to his character. It's a tricky balancing act, but Cooper makes his character's evolution believable and fascinating to watch.

It remains to be seen whether this movie will find an audience. It has big stars, but its thrills are more emotional and intellectual than visceral. Let's hope the star power will draw viewers to “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

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