The new drama The Place Beyond the Pines announces with its first shot that it is a film with risk on its mind, both in front of and behind the scenes. The three-minute-plus tracking shot follows a tattooed motorcycle stunt rider through carnival fairgrounds, through a tent, and into the "globe of death" that is his workplace.
It helps that the director is Derek Cianfrance and the actor Cianfrance's Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling. Laden with stigmata that include a dripping dagger tattoo by his left eye, Gosling's Luke Glanton will prove violent and reckless but also highly sensitive, traits that could describe the actor-director team's volatile approach to cinematic narrative. Glanton's latest stint in Schenectady unexpectedly reunites him with an ex-lover (Eva Mendes' Romina), who in turn introduces him to the one-year-old boy he didn't know he had.
The storyline that follows plays out in cycles resembling the old Dutch proverb "When a door closes, a window opens." Luke quits his job to be a father to the child and, under largely self-imposed pressure to be a breadwinner, embarks on a new life of crime as a bank robber. This pursuit brings him into contact with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an S.P.D. patrolman who's been on the beat for only six months.
Without forgetting about Luke, the film's point of view shifts to Avery, whose story of uneasy ambition also comes with paternal concern: Avery pondering what he will mean to his own one-year-old son or, perhaps, what that son will mean to Avery. Also in this new picture is Avery's patriarch, a former state supreme court judge (Harris Yulin) whose great expectations weigh on his son.
There's a third act, with a baton pass to another set of characters, but perhaps I've already said too much. The Place Beyond the Pines offers the most satisfying cinematic experience we've had at the multiplex thus far this year, and largely through its disinterest in playing along with movie trends. Rather, it's complicated—and proudly so, big-heartedly embracing timeless themes with the bold dramatic impact of an Ancient Greek tragedy writ twenty feet tall.
Cianfrance underlines the at-times absurd vagaries of fate (with too little privilege to go around), and competing definitions of masculine honor, implicitly inviting the audience to consider whether criminal Luke or the ostensible "hero" cop Avery is the better man. That the script by Cianfrance and Ben Coccio has an excess of story to handle in 141 minutes is both a liability—eliding some points of character motivation—and the film's strength of ambition, making the film the equivalent of a book you won't want to put down, even when it's through (is an expanded Director's Cut on home video too much to ask?).
Even those who find the story or characters sketchy will have to concede the textures supplied by Cianfrance's throwback visual approach, Mike Patton's moody score (yes, that Mike Patton, of Faith No More), and a fine ensemble that also includes Ben Mendelsohn ("Animal Kingdom"), Dane DeHaan ("Lawless"), Avery Cohen, Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Rose Byrne, and Mahershala Ali. Though rough around the edges, The Place Among the Pines proves entirely absorbing.