I am unconvinced by Ryan Gosling. There was a critical mass of opinion supporting him as the latest great American actor (notwithstanding the fact that he’s Canadian) after his performance in Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s LA crime thriller of last year, but something about him leaves me cold. In Drive he is a man of few words, a man of cold steel who does what needs to be done and is not prone to letting emotion get in the way. Or, indeed, let emotion play any part in his existence. My partner insisted this was part and parcel of the performance. His cold, dead eyes were the character’s, not Gosling’s own. The character was an emotionless psychopath. Gosling was inhabiting the part magnificently. But for me the lack of humanity came at a cost to the film. I couldn’t engage. There was no one to identify with, no gateway.
At the beginning of the year we had Gangster Squad, the first mainstream film to really attempt to capitalise on his growing stardom (though by luck rather than design, given it would have been well underway prior to Drive’s release), and again it did nothing for me. Granted, it was a pretty poor film, but Gosling was far from a highlight.
And so we arrive at his latest venture, A Place Beyond The Pines, which is a film much more in the Drive tradition than that of Gangster Squad. It’s art house all the way. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt rider at a travelling circus (which wildly differs from his turn as an LA stunt driver in Drive because here he is blond and has more tattoos). A year ago he was performing in upstate New York and had a fling with Romina (Eva Mendes). Now he’s back and, when Romina arrives at one of his shows, he thinks he’s getting some return custom. Instead, she wants to see him because their fling has led to the birth of a son. And like that, Gosling’s life changes. He quits the circus and is determined to provide for his son. Only he doesn’t know how. And besides, Romina has a new man in her life now, someone who treats her well and loves the boy. So Luke turns to bank robbing to try and provide for the boy and sway Romina into leaving her stable life and return to his arms.
As far as most advertising is concerned, this is the movie. Except it isn’t. This is the first act. The second act follows Bradley Cooper’s beat police officer, Avery, and the impact an encounter with Luke has on his life and career.
And then there is a third act which spins off in another new direction entirely.
I’m saying very little there because every detail I give might allow you to fill in the blanks. So let’s talk about whether the movie is worth seeing instead.
I was not a fan of the first act. Gosling gives the same dead-eyed, monotone performance as in Drive (though fortunately isn’t quite as squeaky-voiced as he was in gangster Squad). He fails to exhibit any kind of emotion towards his son, who was allegedly the reason he turned his life upside down and is the reason he’s robbing banks. Eva Mendes is good in the frankly thankless task of trying to act opposite the emotion vacuum that is her off-screen partner, but I breathed a hefty sigh of relief when the action moved on to Cooper’s Avery.
Cooper is someone who I thought was all charm and smarm when I first came across him in The Hangover and The A Team. I thought he was a pretty-boy who believed that having a winning smile was enough (and, to be fair, that could describe Cary Grant who is one of my favourite movie stars). My dismissiveness was partially based on the substandard quality of those earlier movies coupled with the pretty-boy façade. However, since then I have seen the excellent Limitless and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which are excellent films, something which is down in no small part to Cooper’s performances which are nuanced, expressive and lack vanity. He has become someone I really look forward to see on screen.
The Place Beyond The Pines continues that trend, with Cooper providing the heart and soul of the piece in the second act. His cop is placed in some horrible, terrible positions and Cooper wears the conflicting emotions circling his character brilliantly.
I can’t really go into the third act much, except to say that I pretty much didn’t believe it. It relies on serendipity, or coincidence, and that is fine. Coincidence has its place in narrative, as it is far more common in real life than is ever portrayed. However, I didn’t believe in the characters, I didn’t believe in the decisions they made and I didn’t believe the story that plays out.
At 2hrs 20, The Place Beyond The Pines is far too long, especially when only one part of the story really comes to life. It would have been far better off with act 1 being just that, a short, sharp introduction to the story, and an expanded middle section featuring a proper denouement. The second section, as stands, is by far the best, but doesn’t feature enough of an arc to support a story in its own right.
Over all, the film is a big disappointment after all the (art house style) hype that led up to it. It really needed an editor to tell writer/director Derek Cianfrance what was working in his story and what wasn’t, and where to focus the script (see the recent work of Tarantino, Q).