By Don Simpson | March 30, 2013
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan, Eva Mendes, Olga Merediz, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Gabe Fazio, Rose Byrne, Harris Yulin, Robert Clohessy, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta
Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a bottle blonde whose balls to the wall career as stunt bike rider has fatefully delivered him to the outskirts of Schenectady, New York. Inked to the gills and a stone-cold tough guy, Luke lives the solitary existence of a traveling carnie. When Romina (Eva Mendes) — a steamy fling from Luke’s past — tracks him down, Luke realizes that her motive is not as sexual as he might have hoped. Romina has a secret: she is raising Luke’s infant son. But it is time for the carnival to move on; so Luke quits, opting to remain in Schenectady to raise his son. The problem is, Romina lives with her new boyfriend (Mahershala Ali).
Luke decides that the only way that he will ever be able to win Romina back is if he can earn enough money to offer her a life of financial security. An alcoholic auto mechanic, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), takes Luke under his wing, teaching him how to rob banks. As the bank robberies grow increasingly riskier, we sense that Luke is spiraling violently out of control.
After a few impressive chase sequences that deliver the film to a shockingly early climax, The Place Beyond the Pines quickly shifts its focus to the narrative arc of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who has been catapulted to hero status, a recognition that riddles him with guilt. Stuck at home with a crippling injury, Avery finds it impossible to communicate with his wife (Rose Byrne) or face his newborn child. Then, upon his return to work, Avery stumbles into an embarrassing rash of police corruption in his precinct.
Compared to the emotionally riveting opening third of the film, which inventively meshes a heist narrative with the hopelessly morose economic hardships of a fractured family unit, this awkward mid-section of The Place Beyond the Pines plays exactly like the Hollywood police dramas that riddle cinema’s history books. (The casting of Ray Liotta as a corrupt cop seems like a knowing wink of admittance that we have seen this all before.) Then, things only get worse when writer-director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) jumps the shark — I mean, narrative — 15 years into the future, setting the story up for one of the most cliched cinematic tropes known to humankind. That’s right — Luke and Avery’s sons meet each other!
Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) is the thuggish teenager of divorced parents who, after living with his mother for most of his life, has just moved to Schenectady to live with his politico father (Bradley Cooper, aged by way of a five o’clock shadow). Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) is a reclusive stoner who has been raised by his two loving parents but is psychologically troubled by having never known his real father. At first, AJ and Jason bond over their mutual love for drugs; after a while, though, it becomes apparent that fate is pulling them together like the magnetic force of two planets on a collision course with each other. Like fathers, like sons…
Some of the themes of The Place Beyond the Pines seem to work better than others. The economic devastation of Schenectady provides the groundwork for the entire narrative arc, but it works most effectively during Luke’s story. Luke’s financial hardships combined with his desire to raise his child provide him with empathetic qualities, almost legitimizing his choice of lawlessness and brutality over living a life of civility. Secrets, lies and guilt are the greatest threats to both Luke and Avery’s happiness, as well as the happiness of their sons. Cianfrance has no qualms about blaming AJ and Jason’s troubled-present on their fathers’ pasts, because it is the choices that Luke and Avery made 15 years prior that affect the future paths of their sons. Over the course of the 140-minute film, all four men live secret lives that come back to bite them one way or another.
Cianfrance does deserve a lot of credit for the ballsy shifts in focus that The Place Beyond the Pines takes throughout the rambling narrative structure that spans 15 years; yet the tying together of the four distinct narratives feels way too contrived for a film that seems to try so hard to maintain some resemblance of naturalism. Luke’s narrative arc — and the performances of Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes — rival the near-perfect (in my humble opinion) Blue Valentine; but, after such a promising first act, the rest of the film unfortunately only has one redeemable quality: Dane DeHaan’s performance.