An actor whose fame rose in concert with the amount of Tumblrs devoted to him, Ryan Gosling is perhaps the first viral movie star—his offhand utterances repurposed into memes, his visage harvested for viewer-targeted "listicles".
Consequently, Gosling’s recent decision to take a hiatus from acting ("I need a break from myself as much as I imagine the audience does") is a pragmatic decision from a performer aware that his ability to emotionally connect with audiences might soon sink under the weight of pictures of him carrying his dog. But a greater concern for the actor might not be the ravenous online attention but the diminishing returns that come from playing the same type of character over and over again.
While Gosling’s brooding, intense cinematic persona has been employed to excellent effect in several terrific films—not to mention that it’s allowed admirers to project any personality they wish onto the real version of him—the release of his latest film The Place Beyond the Pines finds him in danger of entering a cul-de-sac. As troubled motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton, Gosling once again gives a performance of silent machismo flecked with vulnerability; essentially, his appeal is that he has the body of a movie star and the eyes of a lost little boy.
Gosling is superb in the part, of course, but he was also superb all the other times he played it. Luke, nearly mute and prone to committing vehicular crimes, evokes the nameless protagonist of Drive repeatedly—the key difference being that Drive held Gosling’s character in awe whilst The Place Beyond the Pines has a deeply-felt empathy for Luke’s inability to break from his own failings and limited status. Viewed in a generous light, Luke acts as a commentary on Gosling’s earlier, feted role, finding the point where nonchalant self-assurance sours and becomes something narrow, aimless and fatalistic.
Like Gosling fearing the fatigue of his audience, concerns about over-familiarity in his roles are fairly nascent. Taken within the context of the film (Gosling’s second collaboration with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance), the unwavering naivety of Luke provides a useful counterpoint to Bradley Cooper’s aspiring police officer Avery.
Cooper, who only a few years ago risked similar character-repetition from all the oily parts he accepted in the wake of The Hangover, gives a complicated, committed performance as someone whose fundamental decency is muddied by self-righteousness and ambition. The distance between the two characters and the contrasting ways they deal with their messy situations is perhaps the film’s strongest element, ably supported by compelling turns from Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali and Ben Mendelsohn.
Separated into three distinct acts, The Place Beyond the Pines effectively knocks over all of its pieces and starts afresh on two occasions. In the first instance this is as surprising and invigorating as you’d expect; by the second it has become wearying.
Cianfrance’s bold structural choices are understandable considering the film’s interest in how children pay for their parents’ mistakes and the relentlessness of time, but each iteration of the story has more difficulty than the last in getting up to speed. The final section is also hindered by lurches into hastily-executed melodrama, as if Cianfrance remembered he was supposed to be doing something else and had to hurry to tie everything up as quickly and dramatically as possible.
For a film that’s at its best depicting complex characters pulled by the undertow of their grimly constrained circumstances, it’s a minor disappointment.