The place Beyond The Pines.
The film’s first part centers on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a charismatic biker doing a dangerous wall-of-death stunt act at a travelling fair. He’s a strutting, chain-smoking, much tattooed drifter who is transformed by the discovery that he’s the father of Jason, the six-month-old son of Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress in a suburban Schenectady cafe. In order to be near his son he gives up his transient life and takes a poorly paid job with a rural car repair shop run by the roughneck Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). He remains in touch with the world of reckless speed, and to supplement his income he agrees to rob local banks using his remarkable skills as a biker and drifts into petty crime. The film catches the romance of speed but doesn’t glamorise crime. Romina has found a new, more dependable partner, and Luke remains violent, wilful and lawless. He’s redeemed in the eyes of the audience, but not in those of society, by the way he tries to assume paternal responsibilities.
Gosling gives a moving, unsentimental performance in what is in effect a reworking of Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom, now principally known as the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In the film’s second part, the limelight switches from Gosling to Bradley Cooper, an actor with the same compelling gaze as Gosling’s; both seem to be simultaneously interrogating us and examining themselves. He’s Avery Cross, a complementary figure: a college-educated uniformed cop and son of a well respected ex-judge. He too has a small son. Suddenly he becomes a police hero in somewhat dubious circumstances. Riddled with guilt, he’s drawn into a web of corruption and professional intrigue that wraps itself around the local criminal justice system. Three crooked colleagues (one played by the menacing Ray Liotta, American cinema’s prime exponent of bent coppers) bring his life into collision with those of the working-class Romina and Jason on the other side of the tracks.
Driven by a confused combination of ambition, honesty and guilt, Avery decides to shop the conspirators who seek to draw him into the shady underworld where law enforcers and outlaws mingle. This is Sidney Lumet’s stamping ground (though less intense), and the movie immediately brings to mind Lumet’s Serpico and Prince of the City. It’s an ironic tale that closely parallels the first one about the biker in its moral ambiguity.
For the third part of the triptych, Cianfrance leaps forward 15 years. By then, Avery (for reasons we can easily infer) has broken up with his adoring wife, moved into his distinguished father’s modest mansion and is running for the high office of attorney general of New York. At this point the focus shifts to Luke’s son, Jason, and Avery’s son, AJ, their circumstances unknown to each other and both highly disturbed. In a contrived and perfunctory way they suddenly become high-school classmates in their senior year, and the sins of the fathers are visited on them when they’re in trouble with the authorities as consumers and dealers of drugs. This is the least interesting and the least convincing part of the story. But it is obviously significant to Cianfrance and his co-writers in the way it draws together the themes of masculinity, fatherhood, personal responsibility, inheritance and fate that underlie their merging of American family epic and Greek tragedy. Not for nothing are the sons called Jason and AJ (presumably Ajax), and before they meet AJ has been languishing in the nearby New York township of Troy.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an engrossing, extremely well designed and acted film. It’s subtly photographed by the American-born British cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who did such an immaculate job on Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, and here he gives each of the sections an appropriately distinctive look.
Before you can blink, it seems, the first part of The Pines is over. In fact, Gosling is only onscreen for the first third of the film. For the second act, the focus switches to Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop, husband to a lonely wife and father to a son he has little interest in. Avery’s sole focus is to leave a legacy, aside from being the good cop. A law school-dropout, Avery wants nothing to do with his father’s legacy, a well-respected former judge, but prefers to climb his way to the top in the police force.
While Avery’s complex character sees what is right and seems to want to do it, his motives are as gray as Luke’s in his attempts to make a name for himself. Though keenly aware of his own faults as a father and at one point openly discussing with a therapist his difficulty to look his son in the face, Avery knows he’s not the father he could be. Soon faced with the tangled mess of corrupt law forces, in which the most appropriately-cast Ray Liotta fits like a glove, Avery makes an ultimate decision that will haunt him.
15 years down the road and the third segment of the film arrives. Avery and Luke’s sons paths cross, taking the last lengthy remainder of this film down this long, windy road. Though it attempts a lot of “clever” twists and turns, the last half hour feels like a Lifetime movie for men.
This story is original and connects all characters through 16 lengthy years, each vignette is like a different film, with different angles, rhythms of dialogue and even different rushes of music. While the first part feels like an east-bound regurgitation of another lost boy with a gift for speed, the second a present-day Good-fellas meets the police force.
Director Cianfrances clear motives in this film are commendable, focused solely on a man’s choices, consequences and legacy. Actually, he has described this effort as a “biblical film”, a movie he’s made to capture the sanctity of the “eternity of every moment.”