The Place Beyond The Pines opens with a shot of Gosling’s muscled and heavily-tattooed torso as he plays with a knife. We are given only a brief glimpse of the star’s face before the camera settles behind him for a long tracking shot that follows Gosling’s character through a tatty fairground (he signs a young fan’s autograph in a familiar hand, suggesting that the tats are self-inked, a nice detail) and into a crowded tent, where he gets on a motorbike and enters a ball-shaped cage to perform a death-defying stunt. It’s a striking opening scene, with no obvious cut in the tracking shot to suggest it’s anyone other than Gosling who enters the cage.
It’s been about a year since the travelling fairground visited Schenectady, New York, and its star attraction, motorcycle stunt rider "Handsome" Luke (Gosling), bumps into an old flame, Romina (Mendes), with whom he enjoyed a fling the last time he was in town. Dropping by Romina’s house before the fair hits the road again, Luke discovers she has since given birth to their son, a son he never knew he had. Elsewhere in the city, Avery Cross (Cooper, hardly recognisable at first) is also adjusting to fatherhood. He’s a rookie cop with a law degree and a famous father and aspirations that extend well beyond the police department.
When local mechanic Robin (the excellent Mendelsohn) offers to help Luke stick around and utilise his unique skill set to rob banks to provide for his son, the biker and the cop are set on a collision course. Fifteen years later, Luke and Avery’s grown-up sons encounter each other and struggle to escape the legacy of their fathers’ actions.
The Place Beyond The Pines (which takes its title from the Mohawk translation of Schenectady) is an ambitious follow-up to Cianfrance’s critically-lauded Blue Valentine, and marks the director’s second collaboration with lead actor Gosling. Just as his earlier film was not a simple love story (despite that poster’s tagline), nor is this a simple case of cops and robbers. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys" here. The characters are well-crafted and very human – after his first armed robbery, Luke is violently sick in the getaway van; after a shoot-out that results in his wounding, Avery lies in his hospital bed and cries.
In Blue Valentine, Cianfrance used flashbacks to great effect to contrast the idyllic beginning of a relationship with its bitter end. Here the story is presented in a strictly linear fashion and in three clearly defined sections, with the narrative baton passed from Gosling to Cooper for the second act and then to young DeHaan (of Chronicle and Lawless fame) for the third and final act. Indeed, the film is delineated so clearly, with each section having a distinct tone as well as a different anchoring actor, that you can’t help but compare the three acts against each other. It’s the third act that has the most to do, and sadly it’s this final section that feels the weakest.
The Place Beyond The Pines is an intense and often bleak viewing experience that admittedly drags somewhat at times – by the time the "15 years later" title card appears to usher in the third act you’ve already sat through a full feature film’s worth of running time. However, it’s an epic and worthwhile story of crime and family that is worth the relative slog of the third and final act to reach the conclusion, when the viewer is rewarded with the film’s one glimpse of hope.
EXTRAS ★★½ There's an audio commentary with director Cianfrance; the short featurette Going to The Place Beyond the Pines (4:32); and four deleted scenes (9:53).