This man (Ryan Gosling) and this woman (Eva Mendes) were never properly introduced to the characters they’re playing. I’m misquoting They Live By Night, the much-imitated Nicholas Ray film about the lower-depths life. The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance’s frustrating follow-up to Blue Valentine, seeks to capture a working-class world with gleams, diffused camerawork and a wobbling soundtrack of beyond-eclectic music—for instance, a heavenly but avant-garde choral group (the Threshold Singers?) accompanies a cop entering a police station.
Gosling acts in the slow iconic mode that got so tiresome in Drive. He plays Luke, a carnival motorcyclist tattooed until his skin screams. Luke arrives in the Schenectady that tourists never get to see, there meeting up with an old fling, Romina (Mendes). “Hey,” he says, letting it echo. Luke slowly remembers that he slept with Romina last year, and he soon sees the result, swaddled and diapered; the baby is being raised by another man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali).
Luke is easy prey to be recruited for a child-support-related bank robbery by a fellow biker/mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn). In mid-movie, the focus changes, and we meet a local cop (Bradley Cooper), a judge’s son who joined the force to break away from his father’s influence. He is changed by his encounter with Luke’s crime and becomes entangled in systemized police corruption. The next generation is affected by these events 15 years later.
It’s up to the actors to figure all of this out, and they try. Cooper, in particular, goes from wounded to wounder with ease. The Oakland-born Ali, of Treme and previously of Cal Shakespeare, has a sleek, metallic gleam to his skin and his eyes. His Kofi never does a single thing that you expect in advance. Ali is even allowed one of the film’s two jokes.
The Place Beyond the Pines displays a strangely paternalistic streak. The film suggests that life and fate aren’t up to what a mother’s influence—everything is bred by the males. Yet Luke’s own spree is portrayed as larger-than-life, mythic. But how can we identify? He’s a vicious hothead who would have hurt someone. There’s overmoralizing cinema and then there’s this unfortunate opposite: a film in which the characters mostly have no standards, but we’re supposed to consider them noble because of the force of their blocked emotions.
R; 140 min.