Fathers and sons, cops and robbers, the truth and what people imagine the truth to be – in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” director Derek Cianfrance has made a Greek drama that aspires to be an American epic.
The film falls short of that, but it is far from a failure. The excellent cast and Cianfrance’s pure filmmaking talent make sure of that.
The movie comes in three acts, following the arcs of two men’s lives and the tragic consequences of the seconds where those arcs intersect.
From the opening, Ryan Gosling lights the fuse. As Luke, he’s a heavily inked, bleached blond motorcycle daredevil, going where the carnival takes him, riding like hell to nowhere. That’s fine until he learns that a fling he had with the beautiful Romina (Eva Mendes) when passing through a year earlier produced a child.
In a heartbeat, this rootless thrill-seeker decides he wants to be a father to his son, quitting the carnival and putting down roots in Schenectady (where the movie was made). With few skills and fewer friends, he lucks into a job in a backwoods garage, whose owner Robin is as much in need of company as he is of an employee. (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn so thoroughly inhabits this role it looks like he was born there, just waiting for the movie to happen around him.)
If we were following a typical script, here’s where Luke would struggle to prove himself to Romina – who already has a new and decent man in her life – then trip up somehow before they all live happily ever after.
Romina isn’t playing this game, and neither is Cianfrance. They both know Luke is holding a bad hand, with no pool to draw from.
Luke knows it, too. So, he goes for the wild card, robbing banks with his buddy. “As long as you don’t do it too many times, you’ll be fine,” says Robin, who has done this before.
And, briefly, they are fine. The holdups give Luke the rush he had been missing since his stunt riding days, a rush he needs even more when he realizes Romina has moved on without him. That’s when he makes one very stupid move and comes to the attention of the police.
You can almost hear the voices rise in the Greek chorus as Luke ignores Robin’s warnings to lay low. Angry and alone, he heads out for one last, desperate robbery.
It is Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) who catches up with Luke, and Avery is star-crossed indeed. As the film suddenly shifts gears, Avery is haunted by the consequences of his actions – actions that the media and police edit and polish to a heroic shine. Sinking under the complexity of where his life has taken him, Cooper’s anguished officer turns to his own estranged father for help, and becomes a man he never wanted to be.
As the movie jumps ahead 15 years, it never recovers the energy of Gosling’s reckless manchild. Luke and Avery’s sons, now teens, come together in the kind of Hollywood coincidence Cianfrance has avoided to this point, and, as with their fathers, bad choices pile upon more bad choices as the arcs swing downward to flatten out onto the unknown road ahead.
“The place beyond the pines” is Schenectady, the Native American word for the distant forest – the future – that none of this film’s leading characters are able to see.
At nearly 2½ hours, the movie is too long a journey, but its examination of the very human failings of a few Central New Yorkers is compelling enough to make it worth taking.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Running time: 140 minutes
Rating: R for language, violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference.
The Lowdown: A three-part Greek drama of fathers, sons and tragic consequences, set and filmed in Schenectady.