Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines comes on like a crime drama but is really a melodrama at heart, an unsettling meditation on relationships between fathers and sons and the terrible legacy visited upon sons by the sins of their fathers.
Carnival stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling) is visited after a performance in Schenectedy, NY by Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he had a one night stand the last time his carnival passed through the city. He drives her home but she rebuffs his advances, and when he decides to drop by the next day before the carnival moves on, he discovers that their fling produced a little boy. Shaken by this revelation, he decides to quit the carnival and stay on to look after Ro and their son Jason, despite the fact that she lives with another man. He stumbles into a job with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who owns a ramshackle auto repair garage. Luke quickly learns he can’t make enough money at the garage to support his son and the boy’s mother properly, Robin jokingly suggests that Luke rob a bank – and then reveals that he himself robbed a few over a decade before but stopped before the police could close in on him. They devise a simple plan to rob banks using Luke’s motorcycle riding skill, and after a few successful heists Robin wisely decides to retire from crime again, much to Luke’s displeasure. In desperation Luke opts to go it alone, a decision which will bring him into contact with rookie policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an encounter which will have life-changing consequences for both men.
The movie is divided into three acts: in the first, we follow Luke and how his discovery that he is a father leads him to make decisions and take action that will be his undoing; in the second we follow Avery Cross in the aftermath of his encounter with Luke, and how becoming a ‘hero cop’ takes him down a path he could not have anticipated, which adversely effects many of the relationships in his life, including his relationship with his infant son; and in the final act the two sons come together, initially unaware of their fathers’ shared history and its profound impact on their lives. The pacing of the movie slows across the three acts, starting quickly with crime drama action heightened by Gosling’s brooding masculinity, beginning to slow when Cooper’s story takes the lead, and finally slowing even more when the relationship of the adolescent boys takes over the narrative, before the pace ramps up again with outbursts of violence at the end of the final act. It’s an odd structure on the surface of it, but it works beautifully in building an almost tragic portrait of parental responsibilty and the often shattering effect that physically or emotionally absent fathers have on the self image and well-being of their sons.
Building on the promise shown in his previous feature with Blue Valentine, writer/director Cianfrance and his cast conveys emotion that feels genuine and thus is painful at times to watch, and avoid the contrivances we have come to expect in father/son relationship dramas. He mixes the tone and pacing of two genres uniquely and in a manner that never loses our interest despite the varied pacing and long running time of the film. This is a movie about male antagonists and male relationships, which means that female supports Mendes and Rose Byrne have little to do other than appear briefly as anguished or unhappy foils to the fathers of their sons, which is entirely appropriate for a superb drama that is focused unflinchingly on the often anguished relationship between men and their boys, between men and other men, and between men and themselves.