By Niall McArdle
I only rented The Place Beyond the Pines because I was getting sick of seeing the trailer, which seems to have been tagged on to every DVD I’ve watched this year. And based upon that trailer, I really wasn’t expecting much. It looked to me like it was a crime-film straining too hard for meaning: I was wrong about that. I was unprepared, therefore, for just how good it is and how hard it finally hits home.
The blurb on the DVD cover hailed the film as “an exhilarating epic of fathers, sons and consequences,” and that’s a pretty decent assessment. It’s not epic in the way Lawrence of Arabia is epic: it has only a handful of characters and is entirely set in the drab surroundings of Schenectady, New York. But in dealing with its theme of what happens when you make poor choices, it packs a strong emotional punch.
That happens in the third act, when the actions of the film’s two protagonists have unforeseen consequences for their children. The protagonists are played by Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, two good-looking actors trying to escape their matinee idol status. Gosling has been more successful at this, with performances in Half Nelson and Blue Valentine. Cooper impressed critics with his performance in Silver Linings Playbook. Those who still think they are just a couple of dreamboats and are hoping for a Gosling-Cooper sausage-fest will be disappointed to learn that the two actors share the screen for exactly three seconds.
Schenectady is the sort of down at heel town where a carny from a visiting fair is asked for autographs. The carny is Luke Glanton (Gosling), a motorcyclist who rides in a Globe of Death. We first see him stripped to his chest, before the camera follows behind him in a long tracking shot through the fair. His body is covered in tattoos, but they don’t make him look cool. It’s almost like he wants to get as far away from any pretty-boy fandom he still has left from his Notebook days. It works. He’s wonderful here as a man with few options in life and who is dealing with the news that he has a son by an old flame, Eva Mendes.
Because his own father wasn’t around for him, Luke wants to be there and provide for his son, and sadly the only choice he sees is to rob banks. The motorcycle chases that follow the robberies are shot in long takes with few cuts, and are frightening rather than action-film thrilling. One of those chases brings Cooper into the film. He’s Avery Cross, a law-school graduate and police officer with ambition and dealing with pressure from his father to be something else. His wife, Rose Byrne, also questions why he does the job.
Both strands of the story, Luke’s and Avery’s, involve blue-collar types making bad choices. Avery isn’t really blue-collar the way most cops are, though (his dad is a judge), and one of his choices will vault him out of that world. It’s canny casting to have Cooper play him, as Cooper looks a little too polished and well-scrubbed in comparison to his buddies. He’s very good as a man trying to do the right thing, and he does guilt-ridden quite well.
Years later, Luke’s and Avery’s kids meet in high school, which may be the most contrived thing in the whole story. Both get into trouble, and both are troubled. They are played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. DeHaan was very good in a small but important role in Lawless, and he’s excellent here: he looks emptied out and hang-dog. Cohen is also very good: he has the young Brando’s insolent sneer the rolling gait of a cocky athlete. The two young actors create a mesmerising dynamic as a couple of druggy drop-outs waiting to happen.
All the performances feel authentic, and the cast is well-rounded. It’s always a pleasure to see the great Ray Liotta, even though he has only a small role. Ben Mendelsohn is carving a niche for himself playing well-meaning scummy crooks, and he’s brilliant in this.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a very well-made look at a portion of America far removed from the cosiness of the suburbs. It’s a close examiniation of the codes of hyper-masculinity, and you wonder what sort of film this would be if it was a tale of mothers and daughters. The frames are carefully composed, and there are several shots echoed throughout. As a triptych film, I think it works. And as a film about fathers and sons, it’s a hell of a lot better than Man of Steel.
Verdict: Four Ugly Tattoos out of Five.
The Place Beyond the Pines. Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Photographed by Sean Bobbitt. Music by Mike Patton. Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Harris Yulin, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood.