Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes
The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to 2010’s masterpiece of domestic anguish Blue Valentine, cannot be said to lack in ambition. It wants to tell a story that is at once epic, echoing through multiple generations, and intimate, a tale grounded in the relationships between fathers and sons. What it lacks, at least to a small degree, is the focus necessary to successfully tell a story of that breadth. Split into three distinct phases, each one ultimately suffers from diminishing returns, so that while it begins very strong, it sort of falls apart at the end.
The first phase of the story centres on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman working for a travelling fair who receives a visit from Romina (Eva Mendes), a former lover, and discovers that he has an infant son named Jason. Having grown up without a father himself, Luke is determined to be a part of Jason’s life, though he doesn’t quite possess the necessary skills to slip into a domestic life. The skills that he does possess quickly catch the attention of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), an ex-bank robber who offers to partner with Luke to hit several banks in the surrounding area. Wanting to be able to provide for his son and for Romina, Luke agrees to the plan, which eventually causes his path to cross with that of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie police officer with a young son of his own.
The second phase of the story follows Avery as he deals with the consequences of his encounter with Luke. Although considered a hero by the public, he remains at a low rank within the police force and bristles at having his ambitions curtailed (though not so much, at first, that he'll follow the path his father, a Judge, has clearly mapped out for him). He also, unwittingly, becomes involved in an act of corruption and then alienates himself from the rest of the force when he eventually tries to make things right. His actions lay the ground work for the film's final phase, which takes place fifteen years later and finds Avery running for office while his son, AJ (Emory Cohen), ends up on a collision course with Jason (Dane DeHaan). The sins of the fathers come back to haunt the sons, creating two young men who have no idea why they're as angry as they are - or how to handle it.
The first part of the story is the strongest, tightly written and anchored by a magnetic performance by Gosling. Luke is at once a very tough character and an intensely vulnerable one, as capable of great violence as he is of deep feeling. One of the film's best scenes involves him watching from afar while Romina and her new boyfriend have Jason baptised, struggling with the notion that he's been deemed unworthy to be Jason's father without even being given a chance to try, and perhaps knowing that that's for the best. He is the way that he is because his own father was never around and he tells Romina that that's precisely why he should be around Jason, so that Jason doesn't grow up to be like him. Little does he know that, within the world of the film, the die is already cast: Luke will repeat the pattern set by his father, and Jason will eventually follow suit, just as Avery will eventually embrace his family's power and privilege in order to cover his mistakes, and AJ will do the same. None of the characters can break the cycle, which simply becomes more fixed as it ripples down from generation to generation.
While the second part certainly has its strengths in terms of solidifying the theme of fathers and sons, with Avery wracked with guilt, not so much about what has happened to Luke, but about what will happen to Jason, which in turn severely affects his relationship with AJ; Avery as a character just isn't as dynamic or compelling as Luke, even though Cooper's performance is solid. The finale, meanwhile, feels underdeveloped with its characters (save for Avery, who has the benefit of having the preceding chapter to himself) suffering from the elliptical nature of the storytelling. In truth, a story like this one would probably be better suited to a miniseries rather than a film, because it has so much ground it wants to cover. The Place Beyond the Pines is not a bad movie - in many, but isolated, ways it's a very good movie, but taken as a whole, it's difficult not to be disappointed.