A three-act tale about family and legacy, The Place Beyond the Pines is a fascinating, emotionally compelling and ambitious movie. To call it a “must-watch” might be overselling it, but it is one of the better films of the year and manages to justify every second of its 140-minute running time. How many films can say that? It might be a bit too ambitious and sprawling for some, but for most I feel it will be an incredibly rewarding experience.
The film’s plot is separated into three distinct acts. Yes, a lot of movies follow a three-act structure, but it’s rarely as apparent as this one; here, it’s almost as if these are three separate stories. The protagonist is different in each one, they take new directions and are even sometimes set in different years, and they’re linked only thematically and by the appearance of characters earlier on. Each one is a progression from what’s come before, which means that it’s tough to not spoil earlier events when setting up the later acts. But let’s give it a shot anyway.
The first act is about a rebel and a drifter, Luke (Ryan Gosling), who winds up in a town he was in a year earlier. He finds out that he had a child with a woman named Romina (Eva Mendes) and decides to support both her and the child. With what? He has no money. He makes friends with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who informs him robbing banks is easy money. You can already feel the themes of family, I suppose. That’s as much you’re getting out of me with this portion of the movie.
Second up is a tale of a police officer (Bradley Cooper) who shot and killed a criminal, while also getting injured himself. He becomes celebrated as a hero, but also winds up discovering corruption in the police force. He then sets out to solve this corruption all while trying to deal with all of the emotions that come from having killed a man who had a family that he believes parallels his own. Finally, we have the story set fifteen years later detailing the rebellion of a couple of teenagers. That’s about all I can say.
Hopefully you haven’t already figured out how a couple of the stories end. I tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. The ties aren’t necessarily apparent from the descriptions, or even from the first few moments into each 45-minute act. But once you view the film as a whole, I’m sure it will click. Some small reveals happen during the course of The Place Beyond the Pines, and they do feel like dramatic revelations as opposed to perfunctory and obligated, but you need to see the entire film before its point becomes completely clear.
What makes the film powerful is that it works even if you don’t want to do the work to connect the thematic dots. Each individual portion is emotionally strong and interesting in its own right. You could watch a single portion of The Place Beyond the Pines as a short film and be completely invested in what it has to offer. That it becomes an even better experience as a whole gives it more poignancy and more worth, but you could, in theory, watch each act separately and still glean more than most films have to offer.
I should mention that the first two acts are far stronger than the final one, which is based a little too much on contrivance and duller leads. The two kids just don’t have the same depth that the two adults did in the earlier acts, and there’s a secret between them which you’ll figure out before the film tells you. I mean, it all works thematically and dramatically, but finishing your film with the weakest portion doesn’t lead to a positive lingering thought in the minds of the audience.
Perhaps part of the issue — although certainly not all of it — is that Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are far more experienced and, flatly, better actors than the less experienced pair who are supposed to carry the third act. The two younger actors are Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, and they’re not quite good enough to elevate their unlikable characters to a level that makes them interesting despite their distastefulness. That story rests more on concluding themes and it works better as that than as a character study, which the first two could also boast as a strength.
Apart from Gosling and Cooper, the film has a few significant members of the supporting cast. Eva Mendes might have the most screen time of everyone, and she … is better here than in anything else I’ve seen her do. Someone else could have taken the role to a great height, but Mendes didn’t mess it up and for that I am grateful. Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast.
Without a doubt in my mind, I think you should watch The Place Beyond the Pines. It’s a sprawling and ambitious film that separates its three acts unlike most productions you’ll see, and while each act mostly works as an individual piece, when they come together they create something great. The film works as a thematic statement and as a character study. It contains good performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, and has a career-best turn — not that that’s saying much — from Eva Mendes. This is a film worth checking out.