A stretch of cute neighborhoods with picket fences, green lawns. A traveling carnival filled with trailers and sideshow burnouts. A shack buried out in the forest, surrounded by pine trees and old cars sinking back into nature. Ultimately, it does not matter what you call home, it only matters that you make a home with what you have. At its best, The Place Beyond the Pines reminds us of this oft forgotten sentiment. Following the well-received Blue Valentine (2010), director Derek Cianfrance reunites with actor Ryan Gosling to tell the story of an exciting chain of robberies in small town, upstate New York. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver who tries to build a family with an old flame and a child he never knew he had. Naturally, he does so by committing robbery and so the foundation for his family is built on sand. I honestly wish I could review just this film, because it is thrilling, tragic and it gains momentum without effort. The problem is that The Place Beyond the Pines is three films masquerading as one, and the subsequent chapters become less engaging as time passes.
In the first section of the film, Luke travels in a carnival and awaits the pull of the curtains. As he enters the big tent, he mounts a motorcycle and drives into a small steel ball, sharing the space with two other drivers to the cheers of a crowd. After the show, he is visited by former lover Romina (Eva Mendes) and he drives her home, only to find an infant son waiting. To Luke’s dismay, Romina has no interest in making a family with him, enjoying the security of her boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali). Luke persists, feeling that the blood of their son must bond them together, and attempts to woo her. Beyond these attempts, Luke grapples with his shortcomings as a provider and he uses his only known skill set, riding a motorcycle like no other, to rob banks without pursuit. After a number of successful heists, he has stashed a nest egg for the family he hopes to win and goes to Romina’s house with the gift of a new crib to show his worth.
A confrontation with Kofi follows this show of affection, and in a weak moment Luke allows his anger to boil over and strikes Kofi with a wrench. As Romina fawns over Kofi’s gushing wound, Luke’s son cries bloody murder. And then a beautiful thing happens. Luke picks up his child, leaves the room, and very quickly the crying stops. If The Place Beyond the Pines was not strangled by a devotion to its source novel, this would be the moment to build on. As Luke cradles his child, the audience sees the glimpse of a family that will never be and the man that Luke could have been if he had made different choices. Sadly, Luke embraces a self-destructive path and after his falling out with Romina he attempts to rob two banks at once. When his motorcycle catches a flat, his getaway from the police takes a thrilling turn and the action perfectly plays off the drama of earlier scenes, making the audience care about Luke’s well-being.
However, the novel of the same name never intended the story to end there, and so the film blindly follows, veering away from the conclusion of this story to that of Officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), the very same man who pursued Luke during the chase. His story has little to do with Luke’s family: it involves police corruption. And truthfully, this story has its enthralling moments as well, especially when Avery believes he is being lead into the woods by the crooked cop Deluca (Ray Liotta) to be killed. However, this second section never builds like the first and feels rushed for the limited screen time. Conversely, the third section of this film is an irredeemable mess centered on unlikable characters and with little driving force behind it. Following the highly coincidental friendship of AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan), who are Avery and Luke’s respective offspring, the final chapter wallows in its need for each to find their own identity in the wake of their fathers’ lasting influence. This may have worked on the printed page, but on film it comes across as insufferable and trite. Sadly, this last chapter casts the brilliant opening of The Place Beyond the Pines so far into the background that one might forget that this used to be a good film.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.