John Mayer one cautioned the fathers of the world to be good to their daughters. But what of their wayward sons? What of them, John?! Writer-director Derek Cianfrance steps in to answer that question with The Place Beyond the Pines, his follow up the world's worst date flick, Blue Valentine. In it, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper play a criminal and a cop, respectively, whose paths cross, inadvertently setting up their infant sons for tragedy decades later. It's the kind of 'sins of the father' morality play that's been passed along for eons. Cianfrance's twist is in the telling.
The picture's three acts each focus on different protagonists. Characters that were prominent earlier are pushed to the sidelines, yet they still haunt the frame; their actions echoing and reverberating even after they've exited the movie. It's a framing device more often seen in novels, or, the TV show that is often referred to as the new 'great American novel,' The Wire. Like The Wire, Cianfrance's feature falters in its final moments, unable to adequately deliver on the massive promise of all that has come before. Let's not call it a misstep; merely, unrealised potential. It coulda been a contender. Instead, it's just very good, and that ain't bad at all.
It opens with a long, single take in which Gosling's stunt motorcyclist Luke walks from his trailer to a circus tent, where he defies death in a cage with two other riders before a ravenous crowd. His story begins in the early 90s; information I gleaned through his character's interesting choice of pants (Gosling's fondness for Capris in real life might make this reading moot, however). In Schenectady, New York for the first time in a year, he runs into old flame Romina (Eva Mendes), and discovers he left her with bundle of joy the last time he was in town. Eager to become the kind of loyal dad he never had growing up, he pledges to support them both, despite Romina having shacked up with the reliable Kofi (Mahershala Ali) in his absence.
Luke teams up with ex-con mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) for a series of bank robberies, which fatefully sees him come face to face with rookie cop Avery (Cooper). This face-off is preceded by such a thrilling chase sequence I can't believe it came from the Cassavetes-esque director whose last effort pored over a marital breakup in brilliant, excruciating detail. That'd be like Fast and Furious helmer Justin Lin moving on from that franchise to stage Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway. (If Lin cast Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in the Burton/Taylor roles, I know I would buy a ticket.)
To reveal more would be a shame, and ultimately, unnecessary, as The Place Beyond the Pines follows a trajectory that becomes plain to anyone paying even the slightest attention. The confrontation at the end of Act One leads to a confrontation between the progeny of both Luke and Avery at the end of Act Three, because it must. Dramatic irony! Cianfrance is a little more hopeful than Bill Shakespeare - who was also fond of this trope - suggesting that while it might be human nature to keep repeating history's terrible mistakes, future generations can make incremental improvements that'll one day eventuate to actual goodness and forgiveness (see also: Cloud Atlas). Dane DeHaan delivers the film's best turn as Luke's grown son Jason, a kid compelled to do the wrong thing simply because it was seemingly written in the stars before he was even born.
Cooper, whose character strives to be ethical but finds himself continually drawn back into the muck of corruption (both in the police force, and later, in politics), is mostly responsible for the ending not quite paying off as it should. He recently gave his finest ever performance in Silver Linings Playbook, earning an Oscar nod for his troubles. Though he, like the movie itself, is solid and compelling throughout, his last moments on screen are underwhelming. That said, there's much to appreciate elsewhere: Mike Patton's ominous score, Sean Bobbitt's picturesque cinematography, and the careful plotting by Cianfrance, with co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, not to mention their orchestration of leitmotifs that could have seemed so on-the-nose and inspired so many eye-rolls. It all amounts to a memorable, thoughtful tale; a thriller with real meat on the bone.