Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a tattered melodrama that reaches fevered pitches out of nowhere and ambles with confidence through its baggy plot. It’s a sweaty ride, shifting in and out of rapid speeds that come in spurts, a lot like Ryan Gosling on his getaway motorbike, zipping through Schenectady, N.Y., against oncoming traffic to suddenly curve off onto a damp side street.
Gosling, as Luke, rocks patterned pants, bleached-blond hair and corny tattoos, synthesizing a goofy demeanor with blunt intensity (his voice cracks when he robs banks) that fits perfectly into Cianfrance’s brand of opera in Dullsville.
As Luke’s partner in crime, Ben Mendelsohn limps through his scenes like an outsider artist with homicidal tendencies. Every time he shows up, the jagged tone crackles anew. If his character ever intersected with Ray Liotta’s electric bad cop, you get the feeling the screen would crack in half.
Cianfrance also does great work with Eva Mendes, but she’s always good, and—feat of feats—makes smug jock Bradley Cooper momentarily sympathetic as a skittish cop.
Without spoiling anything, there’s too much story in Pines, and any single plot line would probably work on its own as one compact movie. But Cianfrance’s slapdash way of putting them together gives his movie a roughness it needs, and the swell of characters all trying to gather some ground beneath their feet builds to a unifying idea.
Cianfrance’s movie does not have one central conflict, but everyone involved has a swarm of things they’re trying to figure out about themselves and each other. Laws are broken, boundaries are crossed, faces get bloodied. Lots of these jangly hard-luckers are trying to do the right thing, but there’s not really ever a right thing to do.
Pines goes big, maybe too big, maybe too long, maybe with a questionable story structure. It’s about circus freaks, cop corruption, fatherhood, motherhood, politics, fate and being alone in the universe. It’s a mess. But Cianfrance is really good at playing with the mess he makes. Watch the way the image jumps as Gosling races his bike through the woods, feel the sweaty palms you get during a low-stakes pharmacy robbery, check out the cloud falling over Mendes’ face as she’s put through every ringer a mom could be put through.
You couldn’t really have this thing go any other way. Its false notes ring truer than most movies’ big statements or cheap laughs, and it doesn’t wipe you clean after it gets you dirty. It says very little, but feels huge. There’s plenty not to like about it, but it never asked you to be its friend.