Audacious drama keeps you guessing

The Place Beyond the Pines, from Blue Valentine writer/director Derek Cianfrance, is an unpredictable story with a heavy-duty cast.

Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines, the latest from writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) opens with a shirtless Luke (Ryan Gosling) doing knife tricks in a trailer. In a single long take, he then walks through a fairground, mounts a motorcycle and proceeds to perform daring tricks inside a spherical cage. Shortly thereafter, the tattooed, muscle-shirted Luke and a braless, tousle-haired Romina (Eva Mendes) have a deep but nearly wordless heart-to-heart in front of a brilliantly coloured Ferris wheel.

It’s a strong beginning, instantly recalling both the emotionally raw Blue Valentine and Gosling’s unforgettably badass performance in Drive, but a deceptive one. Not because the movie is bad, but because Cianfrance (and his two co-writers) proceed to throw the viewer for one loop after another.

It turns out that Luke, who travels with the circus, knocked up Romina on his last visit through town. Never having bothered to tell him, she’s now raising their infant son with the aid of her boyfriend (Mahershala Ali) and her mom (Olga Merediz). With severely misguided determination to do the right thing, Luke quits the circus and gets a job for sketchy rural mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). But when fixing cars isn’t paying the bills, Robin tempts Luke into a more lucrative option: robbing banks.

Things go predictably south from there, but Cianfrance is only getting started. My strict policy against spoilers is put to the test with this film, because there’s a plot twist of the most major variety that puts the film onto a totally different track — and even that isn’t the end of the unpredictable plotting.

In a sense it’s most refreshing to see a film that truly keeps you guessing as to where the story is going, but some viewers may find it frustrating. I personally found that the film could have either been quite a bit shorter — an entire, fairly substantial subplot could have hit the cutting room floor without too much ill effect — or, conversely, a whole lot longer, as the material could have filled a good season’s worth of TV.

All the same, if you come in ready to be surprised, there’s a lot to appreciate here. Cianfrance is helped immeasurably by a great cast. Gosling and Mendes are their usual mesmerizing presences, Bradley Cooper (notice how I haven’t mentioned him — it’s related to that spoiler thing) shows that his dramatic turn in Silver Linings Playbook wasn’t a fluke, and the supporting cast includes solid performers like Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood and Mendelsohn, who equally commanded the screen in a similarly dishevelled role in last year’s Killing Them Softly. Cianfrance tackles heavy-duty themes — fate, revenge, violence, fatherhood, corruption — and pulls it off with audacity. ■

The Place Beyond the Pines opens Friday, April 12

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