The film adopts an unusual structure, dividing itself into three distinct sections. The first stars Ryan Gosling, utilising the same quietly dangerous quality he did in Drive, as a circus motorcycle stuntman. His dangerous line of work, directionless lifestyle, and numerous tattoos suggest a man who is not invested in his future. All this changes when, as he is about to leave town, he is told about a one year old baby he unknowingly fathered. He ultimately decides to stick around for the baby, the mother (Eva Mendes) though, now has a successful boyfriend whom she is living with. Fuelled by a desire to be a father, but knowing no life other than his reckless one, he turns to crime as a means to gain money.
His criminal acts will eventually lead him to cross paths with a young cop played by Bradley Cooper, in another surprisingly impressive dramatic performance following Silver Linings Playbook. Like a serious variation on Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Cooper enters the film and then assumes the narrative, becoming the lead for the film’s second chapter.
This switch is quite a risky manoeuvre, not least because the first section is so good, and for a while at least, seems to be paying off. Cooper and Gosling’s characters are similar in that they are both around the same age, from the same town and both have 1 year old sons, yet they live on opposite sides of the law.
If the first narrative switch was unusual, the second one is even more so, jumping forward in time fifteen years, to now focus on the late-teenage offspring of Cooper and Gosling’s characters.
While the film managed to make the first switch seem quite naturalistic, this second one feels more abrupt. Though retaining the same characters and location, the third chapter can feel like part of a different movie, unlike the second and first. This separation unfortunately leads to the constant issue facing anthology/portmanteau films, of some sections being noticeably better than others. While I wouldn’t call The Place Beyond the Pines an anthology film, the first chapter is undoubtedly the best part, while the third chapter, particularly the opening half of it, is the weakest.
Cianfrance forges some ties between the two using visual cues, with gorgeous shots following people driving through the trees, filmed from a high level, appearing throughout. Indeed, Cianfrance’s ambition spreads further than just the story. A large amount of the film is shot in long takes, including some highly impressive scenes, such as a car chase seen almost entirely via an unbroken shot from the pursuing car’s point of view.
The uneven third act almost pulls itself together come the ending though, giving us an emotional payoff, but only for one of the characters.
A bold, if uneven, commendably ambitious multi-generational drama about fathers and sons, and how their actions can affect one another, marking out Derek Cianfrance as more of a talent to watch out for.