Film Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

We first glimpse Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) shirtless, muscular and tattooed, twirling a butterfly knife open and closed with rhythmic precision, finally donning a ragged Metallica tee and leather jacket and climbing onto his motorcycle to perform a daredevil routine inside a metal globe of death for a roaring carnival crowd.

Afterward, coolly received in an encounter with his ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes) – “I have someone,” she tells him – he explains that he is leaving again with the carnival the next morning only to face the revelation that they have a year-old son together, named Jason, whom Romina is raising with her boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali).

The Place Beyond the Pines

Directed by Derek Cianfrance.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Harris Yulin, Emory Cohen.

Wanting a relationship with his son, Luke quits the carnival, announces his intentions – much to Kofi’s displeasure – and finds himself work with the affable local mechanic, Robin Van Der Zee (Ben Mendelsohn). But the danger and adrenaline on which Luke has built his life prefigure his fate, and soon he is robbing banks for money in order to fund a future with Romina and Jason.

His ascension as a notorious criminal precipitates an unavoidable collision course with the law which introduces Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie officer destined for hero-cop status after taking down Glanton. Cross’s own ambition to be more than a beat cop is stymied by ruthlessly corrupt colleagues in the department, even as his feelings about the Glanton case are complicated by the fact that he has an infant son the same age as Glanton’s.

But 15 years later, as Avery runs for attorney general, his son AJ (Emory Cohen) crosses paths with Jason Glanton (Dane DeHaan), setting in motion another series of confrontations that continue the film’s preoccupation with generational conflict, troubled fatherhood, and the fact that everyone gets their hands dirty eventually.

Though he disappears from the proceedings midway through, Ryan Gosling dominates The Place Beyond the Pines to the point where it is tempting to treat the entire film as a showcase for him, particularly as its debut comes shortly after his announcement that he was taking a break from acting (though he subsequently clarified he only meant “a break to direct”).

Combining bits of his previous roles in Blue Valentine (in which he charted another troubled relationship under the direction of Derek Cianfrane) and Drive (with bikes swapping in for cars as the getaway vehicles of choice), Gosling creates a new and memorable antihero vaguely reminiscent of Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard in American History X.

Dane DeHaan delivers another authentic performance as a conflicted adolescent, Eva Mendes as a conflicted mother displays a mixture of scrupulousness and vulnerability, and Bradley Cooper is believable as a true-blue peace officer with his own paternal issues – Harris Yulin appears as his father, a judge who manifestly prefers the idea of a son who had stayed in law school instead of joining the force.

But Emory Cohen stands out as the would-be gangsta teen from a wealthy white family, convincing to the point of upsetting plausibility because his presence is that of a particularly surly hoodlum from The Wire.

If the narrative machinations are notably unsubtle – the flimsy motivation for the bank heist sub-plot comes complete with a speech appraising Luke’s “unique skill set” – the action always carries weight, from a thrilling chase to a series of violent encounters, each with different stakes.

Even the languorous moments of inaction are made atmospheric and infused with meaning thanks to Sean Bobbitt’s deliberate cinematography and a score by American musician Mike Patton which combines classical and ethereal choral music – charting the stately passage of time – with ambient synthesizer tones that flare into harsh discord to underline ugly moments of tension and violence.

If the payoff of a final confrontation is not ultimately worth the drawn-out, multi-generational set-up – the kids’ stories didn’t have to begin at infancy – there is plenty of resonance parceled out along the way as the tripartite story patiently unfolds.

The fundamental triteness of The Place Beyond the Pines is something that only crystallizes afterward; to experience it, even as it dawdles in parts, is to visit a fully realized world of the director’s own (Cianfrance co-wrote the story as well) where the dividing lines of the class system stand out a little more sharply and the power of a gun is undisputable.