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The Place Beyond the Pines

April 8, 2013
The Place Beyond the Pines

It’s not immediately apparent what Derek Cianfrance is doing with The Place Beyond the Pines. There are lots of crime dramas out there, but few that draw so directly from classical tragedy and Victorian novels to present a multigenerational epic like this. All that holds it back from reaching Godfather-like scope is that its story is relatively self-contained in and around Schenectady, New York: that city in the place the Mohawk reached by traveling “beyond the pines” from Albany.

There are three stories contained within the film, all touching on relationships between fathers and sons. In the first, a stunt-rider named Luke (Ryan Gosling) returns to town with the carnival. He meets Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he had a tryst the previous year, resulting in an infant son she now raises with her boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali). Luke decides to quit the carnival and settle in town to be around his son — his own father wasn’t around, and Luke doesn’t want to repeat his father’s mistake.

But he doesn’t exactly have much in the way of marketable skills. He settles in with a former bank robber (Ben Mendelsohn), who suggests that if they’re smart they can get away with pulling more jobs. But “smart” isn’t exactly the best word for Luke. He’s brash and impulsive, with a temper not exactly suited to fatherhood. Soon enough things go sour, and a robbery goes horribly wrong.

The second story’s lead is the diametric opposite of Luke: Avery (Bradley Cooper) is a bright, idealistic rookie in the Schenectady police department. As the son of a prominent judge (Harris Yulin), he first went to law school, but decided he could do more good as a cop. He stumbles into the limelight with a high-profile case, but soon finds himself drawn into a ring of crooked officers whose leader (Ray Liotta) tries to blackmail Avery into joining them. The chief isn’t exactly eager to root out the corruption, so Avery must find another way to do the right thing, even if that means pulling himself out of the job he loves and onto a career path more like his father’s.

The third story concerns two teenagers, both growing up without much of a father. AJ (Emory Cohen) has lived with his mother since his parents’ divorce, and even when he moves back his father is too concerned with his own work to recognize his son’s delinquency. Jason (Dane DeHaan), on the other hand, has always had a man around the house, but it’s not his biological father; he died long before Jason could remember. AJ lacks discipline and respect; Jason lacks identity.

Cianfrance pulls amazing performances out of everyone. Gosling, who worked with Cianfrance in Blue Valentine, draws heavily on his character from Drive, and to great effect. Cooper delivers solid work as the clean-cut kid who is as traumatized by the corruption he finds as by bloody mess that thrust him to prominence. And DeHaan reprises his mastery of the edgy, disaffected adolescent he displayed in Chronicle. And then there’s the supporting cast, each of whom slots into place exactly where they’re needed.

Cianfrance’s movies may never attract the wider audiences who don’t want to sit and think hard about what they’re watching. This is not a fast-paced thriller, despite the occasional, tightly-shot motorcycle chase. It is nonetheless compelling, watching the dominos fall, seemingly inexorably, leading each son to the fate left him by his father.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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