One or two, maybe, but none with as much cred. Ryan Gosling is an Oscar nominee — but possibly not as many times as he should be, in roughly the same position Leonardo DiCaprio was a few years back. Admired and almost respectable enough for the Academy, and yet, with Tigerbeat-grows-up looks that stop some from taking him seriously.
I can’t claim to know why Ryan Gosling selects the roles he does, but based on his work lately, I’d surmise that he prefers parts that allow him to say very little and look awesome doing it. The scorpion jacket and leather gloves of Drive; the ’40s mobster chic of Gangster Squad; whatever the hell goes on in Only God Forgives. His roles tend to exalt him to a James Dean-level of pretty boy stoicism, one part Jason Statham and one part Zac Efron. Maybe it’s a coincidence that most of his roles are overly stylized — even his grungy dad in Blue Valentine had a certain showiness, complete with “can you believe Ryan is slumming it this hard?” baldness and facial hair. Or how about the killer drag of All Good Things? I’m not sure if Ryan is more drawn to characters who are interesting, or characters who look interesting, but either way, the role of “Handsome Luke” seems like it was written for him.
Oh — because it was.
Director Derek Cianfrance is one to watch. He made the shattering Blue Valentine, one of the most memorable and durable indie dramas of the past few years, earning an Oscar nod for Michelle Williams (but none for you, Ryan Gosling). This time, he ups the ante with a story about fathers and sons, cops and robbers, spanning decades. On the one hand, it’s an intimate story focused on a handful of characters, more muted and concentrated than it would be in the hands of most filmmakers. On the other hand, it is sprawling and epic, with an ominous score by Mike Patton and overall sense of fatalistic foreboding. (It manages to make Schenectady, New York, look like the most hopeless place in America. They won’t be playing this at the visitor’s center.)
Fairly early in the movie, daredevil motorcyclist Handsome Luke learns that he fathered a son and takes it upon himself to provide for the boy, mistakenly believing that it’s cash rather than a father figure that the boy needs. Thanks to a suggestion from a new pal Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke gets the brilliant idea to rob banks, using his motorcycle as an initial getaway vehicle. We’re pretty sure right from the start that this isn’t going to end well, because Luke seems doomed right from the moment we meet him. (And speaking of Mendelsohn, he was discovered by many of us in Animal Kingdom, probably this film’s closest cousin.)
Another character eventually becomes a major player — a cop named Avery, played by Bradley Cooper. He’s been on the job less than a year when chance brings Luke and Avery together. Avery has a law degree and has joined the police force against the wishes of pretty much everyone in his life, including his wife (Rose Byrne) and cop father, and eventually a corrupt cop (played by Ray Liotta, Hollywood’s go-to corrupt cop). Both Luke and Avery have sons that are the same age, so we witness two very different styles of (absentee) parenting. The nature versus nurture debate may arise in viewers’ minds, because the movie invokes questions about how much who our fathers are informs who we are. (Class issues are a definite factor as well.)
To say too much about the plot is a bit of a spoiler, especially since the film has been marketed as a Ryan-centric story. It’s true, his role is the showiest. He wears awesome skull pants and sunglasses that could only look cool on him, and he performs many of his own stunts on that motorcycle. He’s just a badass, and Gosling is great in the role. But other performers also get large chunks of screen time in this triptych tale, meaning that The Place Beyond The Pines is an ensemble with a rare structure that makes it feel more epic than it might otherwise. Even when the movie focuses on another character, the shadows cast in previous segments loom large the way some people do even when they’re no longer with us. Few films take enough time to explore the toll that things like crime, violence, absence, neglect, guilt, and soforth take on us. It’s ultimately somewhat depressing to see how this all affects a reasonably innocent bystander, Romina (Eva Mendes), who transforms from a young woman to a middle-aged weary one over the course of the film. Of course we often see characters at different ages in a movie, but rarely does the passage of time feel quite so lived-in and bleak. Characters take action against certain elements in this film, but we never feel like things will get much better because of them.
The Place Beyond The Pines isn’t a flawless film, but it’s one I had few problems with. It unfolds more like a novel than a film, thanks in large part to its structure. You could view the segments in reverse order and have a completely different experience with the film. (Maybe that should be a DVD extra.) I wonder how much was cut out of it, because in some ways, it could and perhaps even should be longer. Not every character gets a lot of screen time — Avery and Luke’s love interests get lost a bit in the shuffle, and yet they make quite an impact with what they’re given.
The film’s chapters give us diminishing returns, since the first section is the best and the last is probably the least developed. A few actions feel rushed, especially since the third act of this film could easily sustain an entire movie all on its own. I wasn’t entirely sold on the desperate actions taken in the climax, even if the emotions that went along with them did feel real. (It didn’t help that it felt too much like scenes we’ve seen before.) But I’d also be eager to watch the film again and bathe even further in the atmosphere and themes that Cianfrance is getting at. They’re not exactly subtle, but there’s truth to them, and to just about everything in this movie. The characters we admire most are on the periphery, and just about any of them could be the protagonist of this story. We could easily watch another triptych focusing on Rose Byrne, on Eva Mendes and her boyfriend, on Avery’s cop buddy. It feels rich enough to sustain another few hours.
Yet none of them would ever look so good on a motorcycle as Ryan Gosling, so at least Cianfrance knows where the money is.