The most ambitious film of the year award should go to The Place Beyond the Pines. The film plays out in a trilogy of stories all interconnected. The film begins with a motorcycle stunt driver Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) performing a daring stunt at the fair inside a cage with two other drivers. The opening shot draws immediate comparison to films by Martin Scorsese and Orson Wells. It's an unbroken shot following the character as he prepares for this stunt. As Luke goes to tell his ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes) he's leaving town, he discovers he has a son. She neglects to tell him about it. He quits his job and stays in town. He plans to get closer to his son and provide for him. As he's riding in the woods one day, a man named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) notices him and admires his riding skills. He lives alone out in the woods and is a skilled (if small time) mechanic. He offers Luke a job and a place to stay. As the two become closer, Robin mentions that many years ago he robbed banks. He stopped because suspicion was growing. Luke decides this is his only option if he wants to stay around and continue to be able to support his son. The robbery sequences alone create more tension than some entire horror films. They form an ingenious scheme. Luke robs the bank on his motorcycle and Robin waits a few blocks away in an unmarked white truck. The first few robberies are a success and they get away Scot-free. After an altercation with Romina's boyfriend, Luke gets arrested on an assault charge. He makes bail and decides he wants to rob two banks in one day. After Robin refuses to help, Luke decides to go solo. "If you ride like lightening you're going to crash like thunder" Robin tells him. He nearly gets caught during his latest robbery and a police chase ensues. Officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) is the officer hot on his tail. It's here that we think we know where the film is going. There are plenty of surprises from here on out and the film continues to defy convention. It's hard to reveal too much more without getting into spoilers, but the film enters a world of police corruption and we get deeply involved with the consequences of these characters' actions.
This is the second film Gosling has done with director Derek Cianfrance. The first one was Blue Valentine. It is easy to see why he decided to go with Gosling here as well. Gosling is one of the finest actors working today. He dominates every scene, even if it's just with a stare. He is sort of a modern day James Dean. He has tattoos running up and down both arms and along his neck. He wears ratty, torn up tee shirts (often inside out) and stone washed jeans. His deep eyes add a mystique to his otherwise harmless, handsome looks. The same can be said of the Cooper character. On the surface, he seems calm and collected, but he is new on the force and isn't quite as smart as he thinks he is. Ray Liotta (Deluca) shows up as a corrupt officer trying to involve Avery in his schemes. The Avery character has higher ambitions and hopes to be District Attorney one day. We flash forward 15 years and find the sons of the Cooper and Gosling characters. Avery's son AJ (Emory Cohen) is the new kid in town and he quickly befriends Jason (Dane DeHann) at school. The two of them do drugs together and smoke together. I won't reveal more, but Pines is a very rewarding film. Its themes about sins of the father, remorse, police corruption, and politics all run deep. The film succeeds in that it never becomes a message movie and avoids being heavy handed with its themes. I like how all the characters are layered. The Gosling character isn't so much a bad guy, but he chooses to do bad things in order to provide for his son. The Cooper character is an honorable cop, but feels guilt for the things he's done. I will say that the third act isn't as intriguing as the first two, but it's still effective and things come full circle. I have never seen a film quite like this before. Many may recall Gosling playing a similar character in Drive. That's a fair comparison, but only to an extent. The characters are similar in that they are loners, often not saying much and eating at lonely diners appearing to be very introverted. They both have daring professions, but the similarities end there.
The film works well for several reasons. The direction is sharp, the characters all well-defined and it's unpredictable. Cianfrance hasn't just made a great film, but he avoided making an easier, more mainstream film. If this film followed a formula it would have been more financially successful. However, it wouldn't be a film that resonates long after it's over. There isn't a weak link in the cast. Everyone does fine work even Eva Mendes gives a strong performance. I also appreciate that there isn't any phony CGI trickery here. The last act picks up 15 years later, but the characters all age naturally. It's very subtle and never once distracting. Clint Eastwood stumbled with this with his biopic J. Edgar. Fortunately, that doesn't happen here. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, but it goes by in a breeze. I never checked my watch once.
Picture: The film arrives in a 2.40:1 HD AVC encoded transfer and is top notch. All of the colors are well saturated and come across clean and clear. There are very strong greens here in the scenes out in the woods. Stubble is very noticeable on a lot of the faces and the blond highlights in Gosling's hair stood out strong. Everything looks sharp and well defined here. I noticed only small traces of grain in some of the early night scenes, but it never became too distracting. Overall, this transfer should please those who check it out.
Sound: We have a DTS HD master track. It is 5.1 and is also top notch. The early racing scenes and the robbery sequences add a nice boost to the rear channels. There are also quite a few quieter scenes, but the dialogue is always clear and audible. The rear channels kick in loud and strong when needed. The track can be quite intense at times and this presents the film quite well. We hear plenty of background noise at a party scene late in the movie and during an earlier chase sequence the effects come in nicely. I couldn't find much to complain about here.
Packaging and Extras:
The extras leave a lot to be desired. We start with an Audio Commentary track with Co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance. This is a solid track. He gives us the usual notes, but he is also very informative as well. We learn where the idea came from, shooting locations, finding the right actors and how he wanted the action sequences to have a level of danger to them. This track should please fans and those curious. Next there is an all too brief (4 minute) featurette Going to the place beyond the pines. We hear from the cast about what attracted them to the characters and how Gosling did a lot of his own stunts. This is purely promotional and it too brief to offer any real insight. Next are 4 deleted and extended scenes. Together, these last just under 10 minutes. The first sequence shows more of the planning of the bank robberies early on. This is between the Ben Mendelsohn character and Gosling's character. They discuss the cut and who gets the bigger cut. It's an ok sequence as far as deleted scenes go, but it was wise to get it. The next one shows the Gosling character as he is getting arrested. The next two are from later in the picture and don't add much. One shows the Jason character as his mother (Mendes) threatens him with military school. The last one is just an extended sequence before a character meets a friend of his fathers. There are some previews for other Universal titles and that's it. Since this is a combo pack, we also get a DVD copy as well as an insert with a digital copy code. The DVD version is the standard retail one with features as well. That adds value to the set in my opinion. This all comes housed in a standard Blu-ray case. It has the Eco logo but thankfully no holes in the case. A slightly embossed paper slipcover repeats the cover art.
I can't speak highly enough of this film. It's well directed, well acted, and intense and won't be soon forgotten by the time the credits roll. It was overlooked in theaters, but hopefully will find a new life on DVD and Blu-ray. The A/V quality is first rate, but the special features leave room for improvement. Fans of the film should pick it up and all others should at least give it a shot.