When Ryan Gosling is cast as a heartthrob, I picture him getting out of costume as soon as he’s offscreen. The actor undoes the zipper on his bodybuilder’s physique, and his confidence falls with it onto the floor. I don’t think he’s a fraud, but maybe it says something that the last working-class tough guy standing in Hollywood, with any upwind haze of ambition or prestige, comes off—to me—as archaic. Like Derek Cianfrance’s movies, Gosling’s rogues represent people who’ve fallen off the map, or simply the screen. (It’s not as if their socioeconomic bracket has vanished. But people who glom onto an American Dream unalloyed by the rust of irony seem to have.) I think it’s too rude to say he’s ripping off Brando—especially as his chronic vulnerability wraps him more tightly in the thin skin of James Dean. But I’d never for a minute believe that his attitudinizing was formed by experience.
The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t intend to create a world soggy with movie myths, but on some level it’s soaked them up. And when Gosling, who functions better in the phony sunshine of Crazy Stupid Love or the industrial moon shadows of Drive—where he’s consciously playing with his persona at the same time that he’s making it—is used as an emblem of authenticity, it gives the lie to the film’s aggressively anti-pomo underpinnings. He’s playing a man without a past, who may have once coexisted in reality with his old-movie counterparts, but appears as a romantic delusion now—a dream for those who want to live “off the grid.” Melodramatic shortcuts hold the plot together, allow the film its premise that the sum of a fate lies in the execution of a single decision. Yet its heavy dose of romanticism gives Pines its integrity. For propulsion, Cianfrance condensed three segments of a story into a single movie that seem like chapters in a book when they should seem like installations in a series of novels. If Pines had been made as a TV miniseries, it may have been worthier of its ultimately complex vision of human interaction; the women might not have been shunted aside (or might have been shunted aside in a thematically richer way, as they were in The Godfather); and the ending—which tries to explain the blank slate of those noirish men without a past—might have been more impactful than a narrow demonstration of mystical symmetry.
The heaviness of the filmmakers’ ambitions invites them to make fools of themselves; and there’s one shot of Gosling, the stunt driver on his motorcycle, in which a traffic light bathes him in crimson as surely as a bucket of blood, that compelled me to think that a real badass wouldn’t just sit literally pretty—he’d gun it. (Drive, he said. Arcane references, anyone?) But allowing vulnerability to foolishness also grants one the porousness to convey better things, and the same impulse toward mythical graphic-making is present, to much greater effect, when the first storyline intersects the second with a bead of Bradley Cooper’s sweat falling into a pool of Gosling’s blood. There’s also a fantastically well-shot and well-played instance of sudden violence, which ends with its perpetrator, Gosling, cradling his baby, and the whole thing dangled in my head like a mobile, with all of the elements of tragic heroism in their own orbits, neither touching nor capable of being touched. There were good, small moments, too. Cianfrance, for whom most comedic scenes are no better than obligatory, has gotten at something in Cooper, who has the gift of showing tires spinning out in his brain. He ages himself 15 years by way of little more than a cocky lope. It’s a fine performance that risks as much likability as his bipolar turn in Silver Linings Playbook did. Like a Tinseltown pro, Gosling’s star-power blinds him from anything that might imperil his image; but his intelligence and instincts shine through: his voice cracks in the heat of bank robbery, exposing the shrimp inside the shark.