Bill Boyle pointed out in casual conversation, director Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines ("Pines") is a book on screen. Not to get it twisted, this film isn't based on any specific piece of literature. It's an original script by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. What Bill meant - I think - is the super-ambitious bigness of it all. Big themes, big chronology, big picture. And I totally agree. Pines lays out like an homunculan arm, bones split at the joints and skin stretched from heart to hands. Sweeping and sprawling, and probably better-suited for a proper thesis. Thoughtfully, I won't betray the bigness with a crammed review, but instead, I'll bruise my knuckles a little against some of the finer points.
Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stunt driver in a traveling carnival. During a stop-over somewhere near Schenectady, New York, he's met by last year's lover, Romina (Eva Mendes), who greets him bra-less in a nipple-hugging t-shirt. Nothing subtle here. She's got his attention and he makes an unexpected visit to learn that Romina had his kid and sees his baby boy. Fatherly love takes over, and despite Romina's new live-in boyfriend and trepidation, Luke sheds the circus and sticks around to take care of his makeshift family. He gets a job at Robin's (Ben Mendelsohn) dodgy off-the-path auto shop, and makes a home in one of Robin's trashy trailers. Ends don't meet and Robin spills about knocking over some banks and Luke's all in for another couple of grab-and-go jobs.
From there, the flick takes a turn and, without giving much away, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) enters frame and fray, as a still-green lawyer turned patrol cop and the son of a local judge (played by the always wonderful Harris Yulin). Avery's story takes over, constantly shadowed by the day he came up against it with Luke, and soiled relationships with wife, kid, and crooked police buddies. Branded a hero and marked for measure by dirty detective DeLuca (Ray Liotta) and crew in an evidence-room drug scheme, Avery can't wrap a grip around the corruption and turns on the force, exchanging his badge for a post as assistant district attorney. Cianfrance jumps ahead in time to find Avery running for State Attorney General and his fuck-up teenage son, AJ (Emory Cohen), befriending Luke's son, Jason (Dane DeHaan). And I won't tell you the rest.
Pines is about many things, like happenstance and circumstance, pressures and priorities, haves and have-nots, sons, sinners and scum. It's also about moving forward and looking back because fate finger-fucks the future. Cianfrance treats us to a long tracking shot through the carnival and into Luke's cycle cage, then a sick and slick chase in the streets and cemetery, through the cop car windshield, watching Luke speed ahead as we follow. And in bouncing handheld action, Avery and Luke cross paths, the ambiguity of the moment staged to perfection. Then, Cianfrance flips tact and we get Avery backing out of the forest when he figures DeLuca's got a killing plan, guilt gilding Avery's political rise, and seeing him back to the pines as an absentee dad and force of fearlessness.
Not sure I'd call it a great film (sorry, Bill), but it's very, very good. Even excellent if I'm pushed to say so. There's so much being explored that almost two and half hours of it is doesn't seem enough to fully realize Cianfrance's vision. Like The Godfather, operatic epics sometimes need multiple manifestations, even the overrated ones (I'm just all blasphemous now). Maybe Pines isn't fitted for a three-movie saga, but it's thematically spanning with a true cinematic claw that takes hold, despite the sputtering final act.