Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is an incredible tour de force, taking place over 3 acts which follow the lives of two generations of a pair of New York families, entwined in a bitter and corrupt police cover-up.
Ryan Gosling is Luke Granton, a professional stunt biker for a travelling circus who lives a dangerous hand-to-mouth existence before discovering a son he fathered over a year ago, which prompts him to settle in sleepy Schenectady, New York. Gosling finds himself an auto-repair job in a garage with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a social outsider with a collection of ticks and awkward mannerisms making him a questionable employer to say the least. Mendelsohn is fantastic in the role, stealing every scene from Gosling, who coincidentally is on top form in this role, delivering contrasting traits of vulnerability and manic rage.
After discovering that the mother of his child, the beautiful Eva Mendes, has moved on and settled down with a new man (Mahershala Ali), Granton seeks a way to make a fast buck in order to win back his family and the ‘perfect’ life he now bitterly watches play out in Mendes’ home. Mendes is perfect in her role as Jason’s mother; Cianfrance somehow avoids the obvious and ignores her capacity for romantic-lead-role, instead concentrating on her talent in conveying the distress of a broken woman torn between love and security.
Robbing banks (Granton’s solution) is a short-lived fantasy for Granton, and leads directly into the second act of the film, after some excellent action scenes in which we see a vulnerability to Gosling’s hard-as-nails biker. Acts 2 and 3 recall the aftermath of Granton’s fate, as cop Bradley cooper struggles to come to terms with his guilt. After being honoured as a hero for taking a bullet, Cooper’s character Avery Cross finds himself victim to a gang of corrupt policemen, who enjoy terrorising Mendes and her family in order to embezzle money. Ray Liotta is ever reliable as the bad guy here, with a haunting on-screen presence which makes the other actors visibly uncomfortable. It is chilling to discover how far up the chain of corruption leads, and viewers are left questioning the validity of Cross’ quest in a world where every lawman has been bought out.
After wrestling with himself for killing the father of a one year old boy, Cross finds it impossible to look at his own son, creating a ghostly parallel of Granton’s story with his own son, and estrangement from the child’s mother. Emory Cohen plays Cooper’s brute of a son, AJ Cross, whose thick Detroit accent and beefy stature mark him out as the school bully after he leaves his mother’s home (Rose Byrne). Despite his thuggish exterior and frankly annoying dialect, we are forced to sympathise with AJ, who never won the acknowledgement of his father.
Granton’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) is a victim of circumstance, as things become complicated between him and AJ once he finds out the truth about his real father. Despite having the love of a step dad, who clearly loves him as his own, Jason struggles with his identity and the idea of justice, Both young actors give excellent performances, and DeHaan’s portrayal of a troubled teen is particularly memorable, avoiding cliché in favour of raw emotion and a credible account of a lost boy in a man’s body.
The second two acts of the film, for me, were totally unexpected and really brought a whole new element to the story. Based on friends’ reviews I had expected a gratuitous action flick reliant upon the star status of the two leads, however, The Place Beyond The Pines is a truly masterful piece of film-making.
From the cast (who are mostly a collection of Hollywood heartthrobs usually associated with rom-coms) to the score (undulating drones, unnerving the viewer) to the clever motif of the forest, this film delivers high above expectations on all counts, and has got to be the best film of the year so far. Daring to be different, and upsetting the conventions of narrative, The Place Beyond the Pines poses many questions about the rules by which we live, and tells a brutal story through beautiful means.