Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines" is a three-act examination of how hard it is not to cross the line between good and evil.
This deep concept starts brilliantly, but it slowly loses design and focus with each new story. By the third act, the writer/director has allowed the film to settle into what plays out as little more than a rejected script from a teen angst TV series. Getting there is an interesting trip.
The first chapter is the story of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt rider who discovers he has a young son. He decides to leave life on the road to become an honest man, not an easy transition.
Cianfrance shows the most confidence with this chapter. Besides a superb opening long-shot that draws you deep into the story, the director mixes his shooting styles to accent the elements of the film. Hand-held shots convey the tension of the moment, while images shot from high above reveal the picturesque Any Town, USA, setting of the film.
This story is also the most compelling because Gosling turns in one of his best performances. He manages to convey both the bravado needed to pull off unlawful acts and the fear of trying to step into a normal lifestyle. This makes for some powerful moments with Eva Mendes, who plays the mother of his child.
The second act is good, but the focus not as tight. Bradley Cooper plays Avery, a police officer whose story launches off the end of Gosling's. The fact the two actors have only seconds on screen together is unfortunate, but necessary to create the structure of the film.
When Cooper's story takes over, the honesty of his character is tested by everyone around him. This becomes a real problem when he discovers his fellow officers don't follow his same code of ethics. The tension comes from his work and family lives, but nothing in what he faces is that original. Cooper's good, but he doesn't have material as good as Gosling's with which to work. Cooper's story lays the groundwork for what becomes the key element of the third act: The sons of Avery and Luke become friends, a relationship that could be disastrous. Neither performance by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, as the teenage offsprings, is that interesting and leaves the third act flat.
All three parts come together to make "The Place Beyond the Pines" a beautifully shot film, whether it be the chaos of a midway or the calm of a baby's crib. It's the story that fades, and no amount of photography can create enough distraction to overlook those flaws.
"The Place Beyond the Pines," rated R for languages, drug use, adult situations. Stars Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Running time: 140 minutes. Grade: B-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.