The title "The Place Beyond the Pines" does not appear until the movie is over, a sly way of underscoring just how many secrets this riveting movie keeps from us.
I'm going to tell only a little about the plot because we would quickly venture into Spoiler City. I'd also recommend that you avoid stories about "Pines," most of which reveal too much.
Ryan Gosling plays a carnival motorcycle stunt driver who resolves to make a career switch when he learns he has a son. That would be good news except his new career is even less stable: bank robbing.
The new job brings him into contact with a cop played by Bradley Cooper, and that's where I'm going to stop summarizing. Just know that everything that comes after the bank robbing is gripping and surprising.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is, in fact, a movie about the surprises life brings, the impossibility of knowing what comes next. Even the opening credits list a number of actors you won't see until an hour into "Pines." As Gosling makes increasingly bad choices, we see how they affect other characters, including Cooper and Eva Mendes as the mother of Gosling's child. We even see how they affect people Gosling doesn't know.
Starting with Gosling meeting his kid, "Pines" repeatedly reiterates the theme that random connections with strangers can change our lives forever. Like TV's tricky "Homeland," "Pines" often lets us glimpse where the story may be headed but then leaps past that point. The story burns slowly,
but the structure of the movie is constantly racing ahead of its plot.
Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance, who also made the tough-to-watch marriage drama "Blue Valentine," comes up with an apt visual metaphor for that structure: He often depicts Gosling walking or riding away from the camera as if to say, "I'm already way ahead of you."
Even when the film ends, with Gosling's and Cooper's stories resolved, a new character is uppermost on the movie's mind, and sure enough, he's buying a motorcycle and racing off into the great unknown.
Movie critic Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.
"THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES"
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
Rated: R, for strong language, drug use, violence and partial nudity
Should you go? Smart and challenging, it's one of the best movies of the year. ***-1/2
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