Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines is a sure-handed effort from a director who proved himself capable of dramatizing difficult human emotions in Blue Valentine.
Pines, opening Friday (3/29/13) in limited release, is perhaps the most linear film of the year. It deals with an overarching theme, even as writer-director Cianfrance transfers the narrative thread from character to character. Where movies have become comfortable with Altman-esque story-telling (weaving unrelated characters into a larger fabric of plot), Cianfrance here tells one story, then hands the plot off to a new character about a third of the way through, before finally passing it to yet another character -- like a relay runner passing the baton.
Pines begins with Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carnival motorcycle daredevil working a small town in upstate New York, where he hooks up with a girl, Romina (Eva Mendes), who he met the year before. Then he discovers that, in fact, she now has a baby, the result of his previous trip through town. So Luke decides to quit the carnival and settle down, so he can know his son, though Romina is in a relationship with someone else.
To support her and the baby, he begins robbing banks, in daring stick-ups involving his motorcycle and an accomplice with a truck. When he finally gets too bold, he's chased and caught by the cops, in a shoot-out with a rookie named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). At which point the movie becomes Avery's story: how he went to law school, then joined the police instead of being a lawyer, to the disapproval of both his wife (Rose Byrne) and his father (Harris Yulin), a judge.
A newly christened hero after surviving his shoot-out with the bank robber, Avery finds himself exposed to a side of police work -- involving corrupt colleagues -- that ultimately pushes him to the top of the heap. Then Cianfrance shifts focus again, jumping forward 15 years, where Avery is now a crusading district attorney running for New York state attorney general. He has a teen-age son, Avery Jr. (Emory Cohen), who makes friends with a new stoner in school, Jason (Dane DeHaan) -- who, as it happens, is Luke's son (but who knows nothing about his long-missing biological father).
There is an inevitability to the story, which builds the tension like a snowball propelled by an avalanche.
This review continues on my website.