'The Place Beyond the Pines' Film Review: A Masterpiece About the Rocky Road of Fatherhood

Fatherhood is an ambitious and challenging endeavour.  It is appropriate then that The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious and challenging film.  The picture explores how becoming a father can alter a man's life, but also looks at how a father can shape the future of his son.  The picture questions what makes a good father and forces you to decide how we define good.

The message of the picture is appropriately summed up by the common phrase "the sins of the father," which was derived from verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  This film reveals that the actions and decisions of two fathers have profound and even some dire effects on their sons.  It explores that many acts have repercussions on loved ones and possibly even shapes their future.  As a relatively new father, this message digs right down to my gut, even though I'm aware I'm witnessing drastically different lives.

We're introduced to Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) with an extended tracking shot that follows him sauntering through the carnival as he is being introduced over the loudspeakers and enters the tent to a big applause right before he performs daredevil stunts on his motorcycle inside a circular cage.  It is an introduction that is fitting for a rock star and instantly makes you think this guy is a big deal.  After his show, he is surrounded by kids who clamour for his autograph and just want to be near this local celebrity.  It then become clear that his control and power is just an illusion, when his life derails after he is confronted by a fling from a year ago, Romina (Eva Mendes), and discovers that they have a son together.

Romina makes it clear she expects nothing, but Luke feels an obligation to provide now that he is a father.  The tattooed bad ass never has felt connected to a family before, and this is his chance to achieve what his father failed to do.  He wants to have a relationship with his son and provide his son with both necessities and gifts.  Luke makes a meager living and the revelations he is a father quickly exposes how little celebrity and power he really has.   He eventually encounters an eccentric guy named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), and is introduced to a quick way to make some cash, robbing banks.  Luke's life may be overwhelming him but he is always a master on his motorcycle, which gives him an exceptional skill in a "trade" that needs a quick departure.

Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is the second father in this story, and he is a low level cop aspiring to move his way up the ranks.  His home life is rough because he's obsessed with his work, and his wife (Rose Byrne) is constantly worried he will leave it in a body bag.  Avery gets a massive boost to his career and image when an event causes him to become a hero, and he has a chance to use this fame to catapult his career.  Things start to get complicated when he discovers several of the cops he works with are corrupt like Deluca (Ray Liotta).  He is torn between doing what he knows is right, but also avoid getting in trouble with his fellow officers. We see a man with a strong moral compass but also an eye firmly focused on personal gain.

Both fathers are incredibly complicated individuals who base their decisions on their social and economic status.  It is their perceptions and values that take them down different paths.  Luke takes the corrupt and dark road, but he is essentially sacrificing his own safety so that he can help out his family.  On the other hand, Avery appears to be a man of justice and even a hero, but he is focused on rising to the top in his career over relationships and family.  I was left questioning who really is the good person here or the good father, or more importantly, if good exists at all in these situations.

Director Derek Cianfrance presents one of the most layered and compelling pictures that I've seen in a long time.  It is intimate in its portrayal of these fathers but also sweeping in its scope.  The dialogue feels natural and organic rather than lines designed to drive the plot forward.  There also isn't a single wasted scene and every single action has an impact on the greater narrative.  The Place Beyond the Pines is the type of picture that needs repeated viewing, so you can catch every detail and insight.

The film has three clear acts, with the first two following the actions of the fathers.  The final act jumps forward 15 years, and focuses on the two sons, Jason Glanton (Dane Dehaan) and AJ Cross (Emory Cohen).  The performances are incredible from start to finish and the writing remains spectacular, but the final act isn't as riveting.  To be fair, the first two acts deliver some of the most engaging and fresh storytelling in modern cinema.  The final act is crucial because it gives weight and importance to everything that took place previously.  We learn how the actions directly shape and impact the destiny of the sons.   

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are two of the hottest acts in Hollywood right now.  They prove their value and incredible talents with powerful performances.  Gosling delivers an award winning worthy showing and is absolutely captivating.  Luke is a tormented character who does some evil things, but Gosling is able to make him relatable and he connects with the audience.  Gosling is incredibly effective in displaying his volatile side while also showing a softness and compassion.  Cooper brings a nuance to his character, and presents a guy strong on the outside but deeply troubled inside.  It is a subtle and understated performance that demonstrates an inner battle being waged inside.

The leads are complimented by a wonderful supporting casts.  Mendes gives one of her the greatest performances in her career as a woman who wants to move on but is also drawn to Luke. Liotta has played crooked cops before, but this is one of his more disturbing and intriguing showing in a long time.  Mendelsohn gives a very casual and easy-going feeling to Luke's partner in crime, and it adds a depth to a character that otherwise could have been forgettable.  I could really end up listing the entire cast, because everyone hits their characters and makes you believe in what is being shown.

The cinematography and music instantly sets the mood for a chilling and disturbing picture.  There is also an eerie beauty to the scenic shots and musical choices.  It plunges you deep into the atmosphere and keeps you unsettled as the tale of the fathers' sins unfolds.  There are moments of hope and beauty, which causes the picture to be that much more impactful during the tragic moments.

Cianfrance already proved his talents and masterful skills in the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine.  This is a far more ambitious film with much loftier goals.  The story would have been powerful if it just focuses on one of the acts, but instead attempts to delve deep into the dirt and complexity of four individuals and those in their lives.  The strong storytelling and expert direction creates a masterpiece that will stick in your mind and trigger discussion for a very long time.  This is the film that has finally kicked off 2013 properly and set the standards for the best pictures of the year.

Rating: ****