The Place Beyond the Pines Review: A Perfectly Imperfect Tale of Fatherhood and Sin
When you have writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) at the helm of a movie starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, you’re off to a good start. Indeed, Cianfrance was aware of this potential and has delivered an ambitious, original epic in The Place Beyond the Pines. A linear but layered story about — most centrally — fatherhood and the fact that all actions have consequences (taking a page out of Breaking Bad’s book), The Place Beyond the Pines is certainly not without its flaws. Nevertheless, though, it ultimately does not miss in having a deep, emotional impact on its audience.
The Place Beyond the Pines is essentially three mini movies in one. As such, one could say that it has nine mini acts, as each mini movie has three acts, like any typical film. This is probably the film’s biggest issue, but without this structure, the film would not have been nearly as emotionally affecting and fulfilling. The issue is that by the time we get to story #3 (or acts 7-9), we are pretty much spent emotionally from two previous climactic moments. Some might say that the film drags by the time it gets to this point. However, it is an essential segment in fully hammering home the film’s aforementioned themes. In that sense, it’s a tradeoff that Cianfrance willingly (and wisely) made.
Now let’s get a little more specific about this film and delve into some of its plot points (in other words, if you don’t want to read any spoilers, you should stop reading here). The first part of the movie features Ryan Gosling as Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman whose job requires constant travel. When he finds out that he has an infant son as a result of a past relationship with a woman named Romina (Eva Mendes), he quits his job so he can stay in Schenectady*, New York to help care for his son and hopefully rekindle his past relationship. However, Romina is with another man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who understandably wants Luke to stay away from him and Romina.
Desperately wanting to prove that he can provide for Romina and their son and win back a place in their lives, Luke turns to robbing banks at the suggestion of an auto repairman named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Using his skill-set (mainly his motorcycle riding skills), Luke teams up with Robin to successfully rob several banks. However, Cianfrance always gives us the feeling that this will ultimately end badly for Luke. After a violent altercation with Kofi alienates him from Romina and his son, Luke becomes consumed by emotion and overzealous, robbing a bank without Robin’s help and eventually being tracked down and killed by a policeman named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). At this point, we see the end of one character’s story and the beginning of another’s.
While the actions-leading-to-consequences theme was crystal clear in Luke’s demise, that very moment represents a consequential action for Avery Cross. While Luke was taking refuge in another family’s home, Cross broke in to confront him, and in a quick series of events, we see that Cross fired at Luke before Luke fired back. Cross escapes with a leg injury, but that is not the only consequence that would befall him.
As the film’s narrative shifts to Cross as the central character, we see that he is a smart and morally upstanding man, which is why his shooting of Luke has left him feeling so remorseful. This only worsens for Cross when he learns that Luke, like him, had an infant son. From this, we get the idea that Cross places high value on being a present, supportive father. The irony of this is that through a series of events tied to this shooting incident, that starts with some of his colleagues (led by a cop named Deluca, played by Ray Liotta), Cross plants the seed of his rise to local political prominence after making a deal that involved him ratting out Deluca and others. He thus alienates himself from his family more and more, becoming something he never believed he was. This brings us to mini movie #3, which takes place 15 years later.
By this time, we have taken in quite a bit as an audience, so as mentioned, this part of the film can feel somewhat excessive. Ultimately, though it is worthwhile. Cross and his wife (Rose Byrne) are now divorced, and his teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen) is a troubled drug addict. It’s clear that Cross has not been there for his family, and furthermore, now that he is running for New York State Attorney General, we see that he has gone against what he said earlier in the film about just being a cop and not trying campaign for himself.
In the final part of the film, the narrative shifts to AJ and Jason Glanton — Luke and Romina’s son. These two characters meet and become somewhat friendly, but are clearly both troubled and addicted to drugs. Thus, in this part of the film, Cianfrance brings to the forefront the motif of fatherhood: AJ is troubled in large part because of neglect from his father, and Jason is troubled presumably because he has never met his biological father.
While I personally couldn’t find Jason’s issues as believable as AJ’s, since Jason had such loving and supportive parents in Romina and Kofi, I could get on board with the idea enough, especially when relating it back to the film’s messages about fatherhood. Jason eventually finds out his real father’s identity and that AJ’s father killed him. This sets Jason off on a vengeful path that leads to a confrontation with his father’s killer, whom he holds at gunpoint. Cross breaks down and tearfully apologizes to Jason, who implicitly forgives Cross and leaves without killing him. This scene is what makes the film’s third segment work. While this third storyline was probably the weakest in the film, this scene validates it. Not only does Cianfrance nicely tie up his themes of fatherhood and sin at one time, but Cooper delivers a piercingly emotional performance worthy of another Oscar nomination.
All this being said, The Place Beyond the Pines is clearly an imperfect film, but at the same time, I cannot imagine it being much different and working as well as it did. Its best aspects — fully fleshed-out characters, great performances, a mostly outstanding script, and deeply emotional and psychological themes — are so strong that its flaws are easily overcome. Also, the film’s structure was simultaneously conventional and unconventional. It was conventional in that it was completely linear from a chronological standpoint, but it was unconventional in that the narrative shifted twice, giving us three distinct (yet intertwined) storylines with different lead characters. While very ambitious, this was a cool approach that helped make for a very memorable film.
Top this all off with an intensely dark and moving musical score, and there is no way you can walk out of this movie not feeling emotionally floored. In my book, that type of impact makes a movie automatically successful.
*Interesting fact: The film’s title actually comes from the meaning of the name “Schenectady”, which is loosely derived from a Mohawk word meaning “place beyond the pine plains.”
What do you think? Leave a comment.