The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
Dir. Derek Cianfrance; Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
By any standards, it’s a bold opening. The Place Beyond the Pine’s opening sequence starts with a close-up shot of Luke Glanton’s (Ryan Gosling) tattooed chest as he incessantly flips a switchblade back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He tugs on a red leather jacket, walks out of his trailer. The shaky cam (which is common throughout the film) follows Gosling closely as he makes his way through the crowd at an outdoor circus. It’s a long shot, bobbing behind Gosling’s head without letting us see his face as he smokes and swaggers past the cheering circus-goers. He enters a tent, to raucous applause, walks over to a motorcycle, and mounts it. Then, and only then, are we allowed to glimpse his face, and it’s right before he covers it with a motorcycle helmet. With two other cyclists, he drives into a large, globular metal cage and begins speeding around and upside down. This long opening shot leads viewers to expect greatness from the rest of the film, and Cianfrance does not disappoint.
The Place Beyond the Pines centers around Luke, a motorcyclist and daredevil who has an act called Luke and the Heartthrobs in a traveling circus. One day, the circus stops off in Schenectady, New York, a poor, rural, strip mall town, the kind that everybody dreams of leaving one day, but no one ever does. There, Luke reconnects with a past lover, Romina (Eva Mendes) and discovers that she has given birth to his son. Despite the fact that Romina is happy in a relationship with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke wants to be a father figure for his son and care for him. He quits his job and has no steady income, so his plan to provide for his son involves robbing banks, leading to a violent altercation with local cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).
What makes this film incredible is its cast. Gosling’s performance as a tormented, chain-smoking motorcyclist isn’t just great because it’s surprising given his roles in films like La La Land and The Notebook, both of which are sweet and romantic; it’s an outstanding performance, period. Gosling is an animal; he literally works in a cage, and he drives his motorcycle so fast that you’re amazed he doesn’t crash. Nonetheless, he tries to be a good father and wants to be present for important moments in his son’s life; at one point, he says, “I want to do something with him that’s his first time. I’m going to look in his face when he tries ice cream. Every time he has ice cream for the rest of his life, he’s going to see my fucking face.”
But he’s conflicted, trapped in his own dead-end life, pacing around until he lashes out at sudden moments. When his friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) dismantles his motorcycle to discourage him from robbing any more banks, Luke wakes him up the next morning gently, stroking his hair, covering his eyes, and saying quietly “Shhhhh, it’s okay… Open your mouth.” Then he shoves a gun in Robin’s mouth. Luke dominates the film; his blue eyes and face tattoo of a dagger dripping blood draw your gaze every time he’s on screen. Rumor has it that Gosling later regretted this tattoo and asked Cianfrance if they could take it off and reshoot. But in a film centered around consequences, Cianfrance made him keep it. The Place Beyond the Pines can best be summed up by the image of Luke speeding down the road on his red motorcycle, ripped white t shirt and bleached blonde hair flying, as he tries to drive away from his problems but ends up right back where he started.
However, the film’s strength truly comes in its supporting cast. Cooper delivers an emotional performance that spans from pride to guilt to shame to remorse to love, and he makes you feel it all. Mendes, despite her relatively short screen time, skillfully embodies a complicated character; she clearly still cares for Luke but knows he’s trouble and just wants to take care of her son. Even the performances of Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, who play Luke and Avery’s fifteen-year-old sons, respectively, nearly made me cry; both are able to convey the complicated nuances and mixture of emotions that come in a father-son relationship. Avery’s son is stuck in the shadow of his father, a heroic cop and district attorney, while Luke’s is lost without a father he barely knew. Their performances leave lasting impressions. Ray Liotta even joins the cast for a short period. It is this amazing depth of field in its actors that makes The Place Beyond the Pines such a meaningful film.
In addition, the score creates a sense of beauty in a landscape otherwise devoid of this quality. One song, Mike Patton’s “The Snow Angel”, is repeated a couple of times throughout the film, and its slow, melancholy mood adds poignancy to the scenes. Patton also often mixes songs with scenes that don’t seem to match, such as a love song during a fight. Such combinations make the viewer question what the intention of the scene is; are we supposed to feel the violence of the fight or the affection of the love song? Can both make sense? Yet the world that Cianfrance creates is so unstable and bold that these musical choices somehow seem apt.
The Place Beyond the Pines is adventurous — in Cianfrance’s vision, in the cast’s performances, in its cinematography, and in its message. The atmosphere of the film is electric and ultimately heartbreaking as it examines its characters choices, their relationships with their fathers or sons, and how they choose to cope with their choices, fates, and legacies.