Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine was defined by an almost unbearable intimacy, an eagerness to plumb deep into the most wrenching emotions of a doomed romance, captured with raw candor and honesty. The Place Beyond The Pines, Cianfrance’s remarkable but overreaching follow-up, initially shares those qualities, as well as another riveting star turn from Ryan Gosling, who lends his soulful trick motorcycle rider turned outlaw antihero the minimalist magnetism of a young Steve McQueen. Few actors are as riveting doing absolutely nothing, and The Place Beyond The Pines perfectly typecasts Gosling as a noir staple: the decent but rudderless drifter driven to violent and desperate action. To the film’s credit, it’s damn near impossible to imagine where The Place Beyond The Pines will end based on where it begins, even though its ever-widening scope causes it to lose some of the grubby intensity of its early scenes.
Gosling’s life is a neon blur of highways, carnival tents, shitty diner food, and one-night stands before he re-encounters pretty single mom Eva Mendes during a small-town stop and must wrestle with the unexpected but hardly shocking consequences of their brief fling years earlier. The previously directionless Gosling suddenly has something to live for, but his desperate attempts to provide for his new family lead him into a charged encounter with a well-born lawman (Bradley Cooper) that has dramatic ramifications on both men’s lives—which in turn ricochet through the lives of their families as well.
It’s tricky to do justice to the ambition and vision of The Place Beyond The Pines without giving away too much about its plot, since the time period, scope, and protagonists change with each act. The Place Beyond The Pines is never more compelling than in its first act, which has the succinct characterization and deft sense of time, place, and class of a first-rate, hard-boiled short story. As it gets more ambitious, the film’s take on its material grows less assured, though its unwieldiness as it moves toward its conclusion is largely a byproduct of its Herculean ambition. It begins as an assured character study and ends as an epic, but it’s best before it widens the frame.