Director Derek Cianfrance made a splash with the superb 2010 feature "Blue Valentine," but it is with "The Place Beyond the Pines" that he has delivered one of the best films of this or any other year. It has all the trappings of an instant American classic.
The setup is pure crime cinema. Ryan Gosling's "Luke," a motorcycle/ carnival stuntman finds out he has a son courtesy of estranged fling Romina (Eva Mendes). He quickly discards his life on the road and decides he's not only going to support his infant son in a way his father never did for him, but he'll turn to robbing banks (under the advice and supervision of Robin; Ben Mendelsohn) as a means of doing so. Things soon go from bad to worst as Luke seemingly makes one poor decision after another; sealing his fate and the fate of his bloodline in the process.
There is enough craft and substance in this narrative to support a great movie all it's own, but this is only the groundwork for Cianfrance's multi-generational epic. You won't find a more ambitious movie any time soon. This picture is divided into three parts; the first being the story of Luke (Gosling), the second following a police officer (Bradley Cooper) ridden with guilt and looking to clean up department corruption and pull some strings for personal gain, and the third taking place fifteen years later to which I will not spoil here. Each segment plays different, thematically and stylistically, from the last, but the overall arch is handled masterfully and the story comes together; comes full circle like some of the finest fiction be it in novels or on the screen.
From the filmmaking to the performances, "Pines" is a flawless experience. The film cooks at a relaxed pace... and while this may isolate the more anxious of audiences, it's crucial to the development of narrative. The action is shot so realistically that we don't find it thrilling, but borderline depressing; watching characters find themselves in a situation where escape seems impossible. The blood-pumping moments of other films are played off somber here, and it's brilliant. As for the bulk of the drama, a pitch-perfect ensemble and sensitive direction create an emotional; though not emotionally manipulative amalgam. We are connected to these individuals because they are human; they are flawed, and incredibly well realized.
Of the entire cast, Gosling and Cooper impressed me the most... and Gosling maybe even more so. His character seems to inhabits the same skin as his iconic creation in "Drive" at first, but he is far more complex and vulnerable. The way he plays out the bank robbery scenes in the film is stellar. Cracking voice, stumbling, paranoid; these are some of the most realistically memorable heist scenes in movies, made possible by an actor in top form.
A special kudos to one of my favorite artists of all time, Mike Patton, on the score. His subtle, haunting compositions allow each scene to speak for themselves, and enhances and amplifies their impact at just the right moments. Exactly what every great film score should do.
It's strange having watched "The Place Beyond the Pines" so early in 2013, because it may just be the finest film I'll see all year. It has a reach and vision far beyond almost everything else out there, and though some critics have deemed Cianfrance's lofty ambitions a negative, I wholeheartedly disagree. This is exactly the kind of off kilter storytelling that's sadly lacking at the multiplex these days, so when one like this shows up (however rare), you owe it to yourself to take advantage. "A Place Beyond the Pines" is as perfect as movies get.