After watching Ryan Gosling’s star turn in “The Place Beyond the Pines” (so named because of its Schenectady setting, as that is the translation of the word), I agree with UTV critic Brian Henry Martin who said, “Ryan Gosling proves again he is the most dynamic film star working in cinema today.”
From the opening hand-held camera sequence, when the tattooed Gosling (who said, in interviews, that “the tear drop might have been a bit too much,” describing Ben Shields’ tattoo designs), a cracker-jack motorcycle rider walks out to do his thing inside the cage at a carnival, we sense that Gosling’s the heir apparent to Steve McQueen. [McQueen preparing to jump the barbed wire fence in “The Great Escape;” Brando in “The Wild Bunch;” and now Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines” are iconic images of the motorcycle as cool.]
The plot of “The Place Beyond the Pines”, spanning 15 years, is a richly-layered throwback film that comments on father-son relationships, nature versus nurture in character development, morality and a host of other topics that rarely come up when you are watching a gigantic computer-generated child’s toy being blown to bits.
Luke Glanton (Gosling) is a prodigy on wheels. His “unique skill set” allows him to travel the carnival circuit, bedding beautiful women and moving on. One of those beautiful women is Romeena, played by Gosling’s real-life squeeze Eva Mendes. When Luke learns that Romeena has given birth to his child, a son Jason who is now a year old, he quits the carnival with the intention of being a full-time father and supporting him. Only problem is Romeena already has a relationship with Kofi (Makershala Ali) and lives in his house with his daughter and her mother. Although attracted to the handsome drifter, she has little to no tolerance for the trouble he will bring into her life.
Luke meets Robin (well-played by Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”), owner of a body shop, who tells him “Good luck supporting a family on minimum wage” and suggests, instead, that the two become a bank-robbing team. (“Not since Hall and Oates has there been such a team.”) Luke will rob the bank, escape on his bike, and drive the bike into a large truck Robin will have waiting down the road.
But Robin warns that the pair must be cautious because “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna’ crash like thunder.” Robin’s prophecy that bank robbing will prove “the biggest rush of your life” turns out to be too true, and Luke seems unable or unwilling to stop taking risks, all in the name of providing for his child.
All goes well until it doesn’t. Enter Policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) who chases and corners Luke after a botched bank robbery. Avery spends the next fifteen years chasing his own conscience after what occurs during their confrontation.
Mike Patton’s music provides us with song titles like “The Weight of Consequences” and “Bank Robber Blues” in the script written by Derek Clanfrance (also the director), Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. Avery has a young son about the same age as Jason Glanton and he tells the police department shrink, after the two men face off, “Now I have a hard time looking at my son.”
Fifteen years pass and the paths of Jason Glant (played by Dane DeHaaan, who will play Harry Osborn in the next “Spiderman”) and A.J. Cross (Emory Cohen) intersect. Jason—who resembles a young Brad Dourif—has a temper like his father’s, the innate ability to ride a motorcycle like his father, and the essential inner goodness that Luke Glanton possessed, a quality which seemingly withered from the lack of a father figure in Luke’s life.
Young Jason has been raised by Kofi. Jason seems to be a far more moral young man than spoiled rich kid A.J. Cross. For me, Emory Cohen’s portrayal of A.J. was the weakest link in an otherwise extremely strong cast, featuring a great performance as a dirty cop from Ray Liotta and all-around strong supporting performances. Cohen’s A.J. was unlikable (as the plot required him to be), difficult to understand in a Sylvester Stallone manner (Sly has a speech impediment from a high forceps delivery) and possesses absolutely none of his father’s values or sense of honor. Avery, by contrast, had a close relationship with his own father, a Superior Court Judge, who coached him in handling rampant corruption in the police department and gave him good advice for forging a successful future in politics,( including the line “A limp goes a long way in politics.”)
Thanks to his respect for his father and their relationship, including the advice his father provides in a crisis, Avery goes on to successfully run for Attorney General of the state of New York and eulogizes his father graveside, saying, “He wasn’t afraid of making enemies. I think that’s why he had so many friends.”
A.J., however, seems somewhat lost-in-the-shuffle of his father’s political aspirations. His parents’ marriage collapses and his mother (Rose Byrne), who is struggling to control him, tells Bradley Cooper that he must take his son to live with him. But Avery still cannot relate to his now-teen-aged son; A.J., as a result, seems a lost soul.
This film restored my confidence that there are still film being made for thinking audiences, just as “Blue Valentine,” (Clanfrance’s previous outing with Gosling), was an adult film for audiences tired of movies where things are blown up as a substitute for a real plot. It also underscored what an interesting career Ryan Gosling is forging for himself, thinking back to his previous films like “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Blue Valentine,” “The Ides of March,” and “Drive,” and now, the equally superb “The Place Beyond the Pines.”