Ah, here’s a movie I’m reviewing that you people might actually go see. It’s in English! And it stars famous Academy Award®™ nominated American actors!
The Place Beyond the Pines (the title refers to the Mohawk word for Schenectady, New York, where the film is set) opens with an incredible tracking shot that follows Luke (Ryan Gosling) from behind as he walks from his trailer and into the dim lights and muted cheers of tent where he’s about to perform as a daredevil—he rides his motorcycle around one of those metal spheres you often see at the circus. It’s a melancholy and beautiful way to establish the nervous energy that’s threatening to explode all around these characters—it recalls the opening shots of Cristian Mungiu’s most recent works—and shows you Luke’s preternatural calm while the worried energy builds around him. It’s probably closer to the truth to say that Luke is guided by instinct more than he bothers to mentally prepare for his death-defying stunts, but regardless, the shot is also an effective method to mentally prepare you for the emotional sprawl of the next two and a half hours, during which Luke, upon learning that he’s father to an infant son, plies his skills on the motorcycle in service of robbing banks and supplementing his income.
The film’s major theme, pulled to the fore in its final third, is the idea that the sins of fathers are visited on their sons. Of course, the sins of Luke’s and Avery’s (Bradley Cooper) sons are less devastating and less significant than their fathers, at least as long as they’re still teenagers (the final third transpires fifteen years after the first two parts). I’d extrapolate this last point to include The Place Beyond the Pines as a whole, because the script, the rest of the characters, and the aesthetics are working on a register below Gosling’s Luke and Cooper’s Avery.
Their sons—Jason is Luke’s, AJ is Avery’s—are just smaller versions of their fathers, in words, in stature, and in deed. This is to be expected, of course, and I didn’t have a problem with the film’s asking the teenagers to carry the final third the way some reviewers did. The tragedy doesn’t come from seeing the sons act out their fathers’ transgressions but fall into their predetermined fates.
My real issue with the movie? The women in Luke’s and Avery’s lives are poorly drawn, to the point that they neither know what’s best for themselves nor their significant others. Moreover, their relationships with their professional mentors stray too close to stereotype despite the creepy charm of Ben Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta. (I have a voluminous soft spot for both actors, but their casting, with Mendelsohn as a loopy out-of-retirement bank robber and Liotta as a crooked cop, really only perpetuates stereotype.) Additionally, director Derek Cianfance’s (Blue Valentine, which unfortunately I haven’t seen) visual and soundtrack choices are no match for the opening; while the film rewards close viewing, the benefits of paying attention are somewhat nullified by the film’s all-over-the-place score and music cues.
Yet Gosling and Cooper are sufficiently charismatic, each in their own way, and thanks to its ambition the film has enough forward momentum—it steadfastly refuses develop the Gosling and Cooper storylines side-by-side, choosing instead to have one directly and chronologically lead into the other—to sustain it through the final act despite its shortcomings.
It bears noting that Gosling and Cooper are both terrific in their roles. Without my doing any research, it’s quite possible that Gosling is the best under-40 actor working today. His bleached-blonde and face-tattooed daredevil has a reserved (if more childlike) demeanor and edginess (though here he’s more beaten and weathered than polished and cool) that are reminiscent of his character in Drive. But unlike The Driver, who was more violently nihilistic, Luke is impulsively and dumbly self-righteous. If Gosling’s characters exude the same quiet confidence, he has a great range that allows him to take that initial state to interesting and varied end results. That Luke is more or less a blank slate allows those who know him to project their most extreme emotions onto him the way some ink-wielding artist has scrawled all over his body.
Personality-wise Cooper’s Avery is not dissimilar from Luke. Luke is naive but guaranteed, thanks to his appearance, to stand out, and Avery is brash and impulsive, too, as he sometimes speaks faster than his brain can stop him. Avery consciously stands out in a crow, too: His haircut and insistence on wearing a navy Reebok windbreaker everywhere he goes mark him as the sort of guy who’d love to take on a bunch of younger dudes in pick-up basketball and play Bruce Bowen-shutdown D during the game. In other words, he fits in perfectly with early-90s small town cop culture. Cooper’s characters are often arrogant: Sometimes he plays that arrogance for laughs (The Hangover); in Silver Linings Playbook he has an off-kilter cockiness that’s the product of derangement and mental disorder; and here Avery boasts an entitled bravura that’s tinged by guilt, secrecy, and nepotism. Cooper does well to earn your empathy, even with Avery’s flaws.
While it’s pretty easy to understand what motivates Luke and Avery, I couldn’t deduce what was driving Romina (with whom Luke had a brief fling) and Jennifer (Avery’s wife). The last time Luke’s travelling circus came through town was the last time he saw Romina (and when he fathered Jason), but in that year-plus period Romina has settled down with a new boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who has allowed Romina, her mother, and the baby to move into his home. I certainly get why Romina would show up at the fair to see Luke and would feel conflicted now that her child’s father has entered the picture. But on the whole, Romina is a frustratingly confused character. The way I saw it, she never had any feelings for Luke aside from the brief time she was willing to have sex with him. Moreover, she’s frequently retorting that she loves Kofi, and in the few scenes that Kofi doesn’t have to stand in the background it’s obvious that he’s a capable father figure, in contrast to Luke and his good but half-baked intentions. I can comprehend that she’s attracted to the enigmatic Luke, but what I can’t comprehend is why she can’t make it clear to him that she’s got a good thing going and tell him “no” when he needs to be told “no.” Either the movie should have been clearer in condemning her actions or, if she’s meant to be a sympathetic character, the movie unfortunately gave her character (and Kofi by extension) short shrift.
Jennifer frustrated me, too: At the beginning of the final third, Jennifer and Avery have separated, and she basically demands that Avery take custody of their troubled son AJ for his senior year of high school even though Avery is campaigning to be New York’s Attorney General. There’s just no way to rationalize this. Moving her already-troubled son for just one year of high school probably isn’t helping whatever’s wrong, and worse, she’s got to know that the man she’s asking to take care of AJ is NOT GOING TO BE HOME. Raise your hand if you think that’s going to end well. (*NO ONE RAISES HAND*) Instead of Avery simply retaining custody after separation, the film leaves Jennifer to make a stupid decision that ultimately turns the final act into a contrivance when it didn’t have to be.
It’s definitely harder to knock The Place Beyond the Pines because it is so uncompromising. I have great admiration for Cianfrance’s ambition, and he deserves credit for his boldness, because his film has an epic energy of presentation that is never dull. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy, and the problems stem from his willingness to neglect certain details in service of that ambition. Most of the film suggests that Cianfrance respects the audience; there’s never a title card that indicates the year when the first two stories take place, but the movie rewards your close attention by dropping hints—old five-dollar bills, old New York license plates, Don Mattingly’s name overheard on the TV—and expects your close attention during the climactic transition from the first to the second stories.
If I’m expected to pay close attention, then I don’t need a score and soundtrack that run the gamut of emotional cues, as this film’s does serve as my cue, especially when the pulsating diegetic sound of the opening shot not only sufficed but very much enhanced the images. If I’m expected to pay close attention, then the movie needed to do a better job outlining its secondary characters. Luckily, the lion’s share of my close attention was focused on Gosling and Cooper, and their performances do fit the film’s grand scale. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s an absorbing bit of a mess thanks to these two.