Ryan Gosling plays the charismatic, lawless Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines. It is a moving, unsentimental performance from the actor more well known for making the ladies swoon, than breaking the law.
The Place Beyond the Pines, has a straight linear movement that sprawls and at times crawls over some 17 years. It’s a trilogy covering the relationship between two families, one blue collar, the other middle class, whose paths cross over two generations in Schenectady, an upstate New York town near the state capital of Albany. In the Mohawk language, Schenectady means “the place beyond the pines”, and the title gives the film both a free-floating poetic resonance and a historical anchorage.
The film’s first part centres on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a charismatic biker doing a dangerous wall-of-death stunt act at a travelling fayre. He’s a strutting, chain-smoking, tattoo covered drifter who is transformed by the discovery that he’s the father of Jason, the six-month-old son of Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress in a suburban Schenectady cafe. Be warned that Eva Mende’s distracting nipples steal most scenes.
In order to be near his son he gives up his transient life and takes a poorly paid job with a rural car repair shop run by the roughneck Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). He remains in touch with the world of reckless speed, and to supplement his income he agrees to rob local banks using his remarkable skills as a biker and drifts into petty crime. The film catches the romance of speed but doesn’t glamorise crime. Romina has found a new, more dependable partner, and Luke remains violent, wilful and lawless. He’s redeemed in the eyes of the audience, but not in those of society, by the way he tries to assume paternal responsibilities. Gosling gives a moving, unsentimental performance.
In the film’s second part, the limelight switches from Gosling to Bradley Cooper, an actor with the same compelling gaze as Gosling’s; both seem to be simultaneously interrogating us and examining themselves. He’s Avery Cross, a complementary figure: a college-educated police officer and son of a well respected ex-judge. He too has a small son. Suddenly he becomes a police hero in somewhat dubious circumstances.
Riddled with guilt, he’s drawn into a web of corruption and professional intrigue that wraps itself around the local criminal justice system. Three crooked colleagues (one played by the menacing Ray Liotta, American cinema’s prime exponent of bent coppers) bring his life into collision with those of the working-class Romina and Jason on the other side of the tracks.
Driven by a confused combination of ambition, honesty and guilt, Avery decides to shop the conspirators who seek to draw him into the shady underworld where law enforcers and outlaws mingle. It’s an ironic tale that closely parallels the first one about the biker in its moral ambiguity.
The third part of the movie leaps forward 15 years. By then, Avery has broken up with his adoring wife, moved into his distinguished father’s modest mansion and is running for the high office of attorney general of New York. At this point the focus shifts to Luke’s son, Jason, and Avery’s son, AJ, their circumstances unknown to each other and both highly disturbed. In a contrived way they suddenly become high-school classmates in their senior year, and the sins of the fathers are visited on them when they’re in trouble with the authorities as consumers and dealers of drugs.
This is the least interesting and the least convincing part of the story. But it is obviously significant to Cianfrance and his co-writers in the way it draws together the themes of masculinity, fatherhood, personal responsibility, inheritance and fate that underlie their merging of American family epic and Greek tragedy.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an engrossing, extremely well designed and acted movie. Ultimately, however, the movie is overlong, not as sharply pointed as it might be, and at its best when viewed realistically rather than analysed and assessed in terms of its lofty ambitions.
By Ruth Walker