In The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance’s third feature film (his first, Brother Tied, is allegedly still sat in his father’s basement, as yet undistributed), relationships between fathers and their sons, and what it means to be a “man”, take center stage, in a manner reminiscent of The Godfather trilogy. Except, in this film, three stories are rolled in to one as the audience is treated (or subjected, depending on who you ask) to over a decade’s worth of complex family ties. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper play the the focal fathers, and it is their actions early on in the film which breed a deep rooted anxiety in the younger generations introduced much later.
In 2010’s Blue Valentine, Cianfrance crafted an intimate study of a relationship, from youthful beginning to bitter end. In a way, The Place Beyond the Pines can be seen as both an answer to and an extension of its predecessor, reaching far beyond the privacy of lovers and examining the broader consequences of a parent’s actions on their children. The first third of the film sees Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, as Luke and Romina, locked in a desperate desire for each other, despite the latter’s misgivings. And then in one shocking swoop, the film completely abandons its interest in romance. Pulled out of the dizzying world of motorcycles and tattoos, the audience is dumped right into the center of an arguably typical cop drama, with Bradley Cooper, as Avery Cross, battling against corrupt goings-on within his police department. Dealing with uncomfortable guilt and shady morals, this middle section begins with the harsh and irritating light of a hospital, flickering over Avery’s body lying still. Compare this with the fantastic opening shot of the entire film, where Luke dresses and strides confidently among the colourful and magical lights of the fairground, each flickering and turning with the blink of an eye, and you have your two opposing cinematic tones: one naive yet allegorical; the other cold and business-like. To go from one to the other so suddenly is understandably alarming, and the film does ask a lot of its audience: to remain invested in the story despite the ring leader of the circus having been removed.
And yet Cianfrance goes even further, by then continuing his narrative to encompass new life, and with it the inheritance of regret and loss. In a manner almost similar to Terrence Malick’s obsession with the overwhelming immensity of life, Cianfrance has no qualms with shifting his focus from person to person, telling parts of their stories, years apart, in an effort to demonstrate that the lives we lead are not just our own. Despite not being present for over half of it, Luke haunts the entirety of the film, his face being recalled through lines and visual echoes. The red car light that shines over Avery’s face as he stares at Peter in the woods, recalls the red of the traffic light that shines on Luke as he stares at the bank. Both characters in these scenes are looking at danger, but only one meets it head on. And in the last third of the film, Jason, played by a gangly Dane DeHaan, mirrors his father’s actions by both obsessively riding a bicycle (he once uses it as a getaway vehicle after robbing a pharmacy), and frequently wearing a rucksack.
The star of the show is definitely Emory Cohen as Avery’s son AJ, who, in the third act, struggles to know his distant and troubled father. Just like Jason, he feels he cannot become a man without the peace of mind that comes from knowing one’s history. Interestingly, the audience never see Avery holding his own son as a child (one of the only times he makes contact is when he is threatening him), but they do see him holding Jason, Luke’s son, and it is this cruel fact which cleverly highlights the reason for AJ’s bitterness: a lack of intimacy. Cohen plays his part with just the right amount of front to make you believe in his insecurity.
Many have found the ambition of The Place Beyond the Pines to be its downfall. How can so many stories be told, and so many characters introduced, in a way that supports the film as a whole? The answer is quite simple: by involving some straightforward themes which unite the disparate threads. Cianfrance seems to be asking, throughout his film, what it means to be a man. Luke covers himself in threatening tattoos, wears his leather jacket, dies his hair, rides his motorcycle fast, and carries his gun. He believes his reckless devotion to his son can save him and those he loves. Avery is obsessed with the justice system, chases glory and achievement, and believes that success and popularity in the eyes of others is all that can improve his character. They each pass on their faults to their children, who, I believe, in the end, are more “men” than their fathers. Through an understanding of their “sins”, staring their faults right in the face and accepting them wholeheartedly, they are the ones who can now move forward and reach a place, somewhere, beyond the one that has been handed down to them.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2