“The Place Beyond the Pines” a densely structured tragedy with massive scope and near-Greek ambitions

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A shirtless, vividly tattooed man is seen from the neck below. He nervously flickers a butterfly knife, pacing about until his name is called. He tosses on a leather jacket, lights a cigarette and treks through a neon-colored night carnival. The credits roll. He continues to pace. The credits end. He enters a tent to rapturous applause, boards a motorcycle, enters a narrow spherical cage with two other men, and rides at top speed with them; looping in, out, and upside-down whilst managing not to strike and kill one another.

And so with this singular, unbroken four-minute shot, The Place Beyond the Pines manages to boldly declare itself as a different beast from anything else within theaters, perhaps even the American cinematic canon at large. Indeed, this is a film that explores the relationships between family, violence, prosperity and masculinity with such skill and such insight, that it’s not hearsay to see this as a twisted companion piece to, say, The Godfather: Part II. Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece is a film playing with many of the same issues that Pines soaks in, if on a wildly different scale. In fact, I’d argue what Pines does is bolder. Have your attention now, do I?

Our aforementioned motorcyclist is Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), an aimless, seedy young drifter who has inked his body to such an extent that we question both the events of his past and any hope for the future. When his traveling carnival makes a stopover in Schenectady, he is approached by the similarly unambitious Romina — a part-time waitress and old flame — with the news that their last encounter left her a child. Now tasked with the burden of fatherhood, Luke argues that he deserves a place in the boy’s life, and perhaps even in Romina’s heart again, although she’s moved on with another man. To provide for his self-appointed ‘father’ role, Luke turns towards robbing local banks. To reveal more is to do a grave disservice to the narrative ingenuity of Place Beyond the Pines, but the film additionally telegraphs the arc of an ambitious young police officer, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who makes a vital, split-second decision in the line of duty whose impact is felt for the remaining 15 years over which this film takes place.

The scope of the film walks an impossible tightrope — sweeping across decades to emphasize its core themes and thesis of long-term consequences and psychological burdening, while intimately detailing both the lush upstate New York environment and the utterly damaged individuals that dwell within. It’s bold and big, but the thoroughly fleshed-out characters ensure it never veers into the territory of opaqueness or overt symbolism. Writer-director Derek Cienfrance is far too skilled for that — staging masterful chases when they arise, but keeping in constant check any flashier tendencies or heightened aesthetic tricks. Why would he need them when he has the dynamic performances of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, both of whom expand on their past screen-personas in a genuinely interesting way? Cooper takes his likable confidence and drags it into slimy, manipulative territory. Gosling, on the other hand, who has embodied confident machismo expertly with films like Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love, does something that he hasn’t quite explored yet. His Luke is mired deep in conceptions of his own masculinity, but when forced to take responsibility and provide for a makeshift family unit, ultimately spirals out of control and into tragedy. For this exact reason — his use of movie-star charisma to communicate genuine human desperation — it’s the most complex, satisfying role of his young career.

For 140 minutes, The Place Beyond the Pines demonstrates itself as a work of complete stylistic and thematic unity. It is at once a haunting morality tale, meditation on legacy and family, and utterly thrilling heist thriller — when it wants to be, that is. In the long-term, we have a bold new cinematic auteur in Derek Cienfrance. But for now? The best crime drama in years will do. A

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