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“Into the Woods”
Grade: B+/A- (SEE IT)

“IF YOU RIDE like lightning you’ll crash like thunder.”  Those are cautionary words delivered by Ben Mendelsohn, a car mechanic and former bank robber, to Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines.” It’s a worthy follow-up, from director Derekthe-place-beyond-the-pines-dane-dehaan-emory-cohen Cianfrance, to his “Blue Valentine” of 2010 and every bit as grittily realistic and desperately somber.  A peroxide-blond Gosling plays Luke, a stunt biker and drifter who, in an already much-discussed opening shot, walks from his carnival tent to a giant metal cage in which he and two other bikers zip around upside down and sideways. Cianfrance maintains that frenetic pace as Luke is soon reunited with Romina (Eva Mendes) whom he saw the last time he was in town and, unbeknownst to him, impregnated.

Luke vows to pull his life together and support his wife and child but is drawn to the allure of danger and easy money.  Ben Mendelsohn’s character Robin schools Luke in how to rob banks in the Schenectady area, which he does successfully, at least, for a The-Place-Beyond-The-Pines-posterwhile. Gosling’s character is heavily tattooed – Frankenstein’s visage adorns his hand – but all the writing on his neck and fingers belies the fact that Luke is virtually unreadable.  Gosling can play this too-cool-for-school macho role with his eyes closed – we’ve seen it before in “Drive” where there, too, he played another stunt man with a heart of gold – but here, he makes us sympathize with this daredevil turned family man.  “Pines” artfully captures the exhilaration of crime as we watch Luke speed off, heist after heist, to Robin’s getaway truck, which carries him out beyond the pines where the men chain-smoke and count their cash.

Like “Blue Valentine,” “Pines” spans a swath of time – fifteen years, to be exact – and it would spoil the plot to reveal how exactly Luke and Bradley Cooper’s character Avery cross paths except to say that film’s second half belongs not to the criminal but to the cop who stops Luke dead-in-his-tracks.  Avery is the son of a judge (played by Harris Yulin) and a new father himself, and though his life looks honest and respectable in comparison to Luke’s, we find that he’s surrounded by crooked cops (including a typecast Ray Liotta).  Flash-forward 15 years and both Luke and Avery’s sons – AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) – are teenagers in the same high school, and here we see the leitmotif of the sins of the father played out as Jason slowly realizes his friend’s father’s involvement in his own family history. ‘Nuff said.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is driven chiefly by the magnetism of its actors.  This is surely Eva Mendes’ best performance to date, but because “Pines” is interested mainly in men and the patrilineality of violence and regret, she’s forced to bring everything she has to a somewhat trite and undeveloped role.  The same is true for Rose ByrneMV5BMjI5NDY5NTY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDE5ODEyOQ@@._V1._SX640_SY427_ who (dis)appears later in the film as Bradley Cooper’s wife Jennifer.  It’s the singular failure of Cianfrance’s film – and a script by Ben Coccio and Darius Marder – that a woman’s only job is to wait on the sidelines and worry about her man.  AJ is entirely misplayed by Emory Cohen – too “street” for a DA’s son – whereas Dane DeHaan brings real pathos to the part of Jason, a fatherless child who, in the last scene, only wants to feel what his outlaw father must have felt as he drives his motorcycle out beyond the pines.  It’s a lasting image and one of an achingly real predicament: a teenager who, lost in his own grief, can’t see the forest for the trees.