This review was originally published on September 10, 2012, as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" starts its journey with a dark screen and the sound of breathing as our only stimulus. Stunt bike rider Luke (Ryan Gosling) sports a black Metallica t-shirt, and a group of random scribbles masquerading as tattoos adorn his neck. Everything about him seems "danger, with a side of unstable," and that's even before he gets into a rounded metal cage with two other stunt riders, revs the engine, and drives upside-down a few inches from another bike headed full speed in the opposite direction. It's a county fair, and this attraction is probably called something like "The Wheel of Death" or "Moto-Doom."
Luke is just passing through town. He smokes a lot, and he has the look of the precise sort of person you wouldn't want to get into a physical altercation with. After the show, he gets a visit from a woman he met the year before, Romina (Eva Mendes). This sentimental reunion sets in motion a chain of events spanning decades and generations. Lives unravel with steam, with the desperate and ugly past gaining furious and consequential ground on the present.
To say more of the plot would be a disservice, as the cleverness of "The Place Beyond the Pines" springs from the atmospheric tension that comes from not knowing how each scene will play out. Those familiar with director Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine") will likely have some idea of what they're in for, though "The Place Beyond the Pines" has better pacing and far less muddled themes than his first feature film. There is true beauty in the despair that pervades "The Place Beyond the Pines," a film plotted out in triptych, a treatise on the moral compromises we all make to protect and provide for our loved ones. In Cianfrance's world, there are no heroes, only brutal shared truths, protagonists filled with coiled rage, set against menacingly dark hues of Schenectady, New York.
Most of all, "The Place Beyond the Pines" deals with how quickly the fragmented bonds of a culture can slip out from underneath lost souls. These bonds seem plenty sturdy — the kindly police are patrolling your street, your friendly neighborhood mechanic has a place you can crash for the night — but all the illusions are swept away when the action of the film is in full throat. Bradley Cooper does serviceable work as young policeman Avery Cross, and Ray Liotta has solid moments as a fellow officer as well. Rose Byrne and Dane DeHaan are also involved, but let's not say how, other than to note their participation and talents.
The real art of "The Place Beyond the Pines" is the innovative plot construct, which can only be compared to films such as "The Godfather" and "A Prophet." No, "The Place Beyond the Pines" isn't as good as either of those films, and it's not nearly as watchable as either (less overall arc, too weighty throughout), but it certainly heralds the arrival of a vibrant director. It's not the type of film anyone outside of "serious" film fans will have the patience for, but it's no less the accomplishment for the total lack of comfort it provides an audience.