The Place a Good Movie Gets Buried
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is an epic film from writer and director Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine"). The movie tells three stories all of which are connected. The first two tell of two men whose decisions affect the fates of their sons. The third story is about those sons who become friends but then collide when they learn of their fathers’ actions.
With his co-writers, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, Mr. Cianfrance tells an intimate story of each father. In the first story Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a free spirit who rides a motor bike in a traveling fair to earn ends meat. When he performs one night in Schenectady, New York (the town’s name is an old Mohawk name which translates into the title of the film), he is sought out by an old flame Romina (Eva Mendes). The meeting seems as casual as it did when they had their fling until he learns that Romina had his son. Luke feels obligated to provide for the boy even though Romina has moved in with another man. Desperate for money and with no options he resorts to robbery.
Luke’s story fades into Avery Cross’ (Bradley Cooper), a police officer, which opens as he is caught alone in a hostage situation. He kills the perpetrator but there is some question as to whether he did all that was possible to keep the situation from ending tragically. Avery is cleared and considered a hero. During his recovery he unwillingly partakes in an act of corruption that he discovers is rampant within Schenectady’s police department. Uncomfortable with this knowledge but aware that his closest friends are involved he is backed into a moral corner.
The third story takes place in what we can assume is the present when Luke and Avery’s two sons are teenagers. The two previous stories unfold when the boys were one year old. Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) has grown up in a supportive two parent home (Romina married the man she moved in with [a very solid performance by Mahershala Ali playing a black step-father to a white teenager]) but in a town with few options he resorts to selling drugs. AJ (Emory Cohen), Avery’s son, lives in the wealthier part of town. AJ sleeps in the big house and can get rides in the nice cars but his parents’ attention is fleeting. The two boys meet and become friends. When they go to pick up some drugs they are busted and that’s when their fathers’ stories seep into their lives. The past has a profound effect on Jason and it unshackles a dormant ferocity.
What the movie "The Place Beyond the Pines" is about is the two friends who fall out of favor and use violence as a means to discharge vengeance upon each other. Mr. Cianfrance tells us the story of their fathers to help us care about these boys and I would guess to explain their actions. It is the least compelling of the three stories. Even with the knowledge of their father’s histories these two characters don’t do anything to make them sympathetic. The Luke story is an interesting character study but the real focus of the movie should have been on the Avery Cross character.
Mr. Gosling and Ms. Mendes are the reasons our interest takes hold in the first story. Luke seems like a simple man but wanting to take responsibility for his actions is the first surprise from this character. There is a violent storm brewing within this man that Mr. Gosling is able to conceal. But we are not surprised to see the rage when it takes over. Mr. Gosling is so good his performance looks easy. He is one of the few actors who can extract satisfaction from an audience just by leaning on a motor bike while staring into space. Ms. Mendes makes a compatible partner. Watching her hold on to the roller coaster he puts her emotions on is rewarding. She works well off of him, tentatively at first, not sure if this Luke would be a good father. She eventually lets go of her desires but has to fight off the violence his unbalanced reasoning sporadically summons. A scene on her porch when Luke confronts Romina about being part of Jason’s life is a high water mark for Ms. Mendes career. He is calm and pleading and Ms. Mendes wrestles with all the emotions a good woman would confront with a man who is sincere about playing a part in raising their son.
The major mistake Mr. Cianfrance and his co-writers made was not focusing the story of the movie on the Avery Cross story. Avery is the son of a judge who passed the bar but instead of becoming a lawyer he became a police officer to give back to the community. But some people are not cut out to be cops and Avery is one of them. Mr. Cooper gives the best performance of his career as a man who sets out to do good for his community but contributes to its graft. Mr. Cooper gives the character layers of complexity without uttering a word. He must wrestle with his conscience while at the same time betraying his friends and an organization that is a symbol of good in the town. Without words Mr. Cooper portrays a character who is not built for physical confrontations that the police regularly confront. When he discovers the corruption he is horrified and scared. Mr. Cooper was nominated for "Silver Linings Playbook" playing a character with bipolar disorder. He was nonstop energy portraying a character that has gone off the rails mentally. When playing these characters an actor gets into a rhythm and can hide behind outlandishness. Mr. Cooper, as Avery, has no where to hide but in the emotions his character feels. He does what he feels is proper procedure by taking his knowledge of corruption to the police chief (Robert Clohessy). Avery is thrown into limbo when he is reprimanded by the chief who doesn’t want to know about any corruption. What he has been taught about right and wrong has suddenly turned grey. I had wished Mr. Cianfrance had concentrated on that story. He also missed an opportunity to build around a great performance by Mr. Cooper.