I've been hugging myself practically all weekend.
The first clue that we should expect this story to be poetic is in the film's title. It is essentially the literal translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, that small city in eastern New York state in which this elegiac film takes place. Spanning two generations in three separate stories, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is bound together inextricably by fathers and sons, values and choices. This is no ordinary copland flick, but something much deeper and layered because of the attention and empathy it gives its characters.
***This is an extensive review that combines my notes after viewing the film a third time. Spoilers ahead, though I keep some of the big stuff mysterious.***
The opening grabs us with hypnotic power in one unbroken 4-minute tracking shot. It begins on a pierced, toned and inked Handsome Luke (Ryan Gosling) in his trailer at the fair, shows him working his way passed amusement rides and gaming stands, and ends in a tent where he and two others will board motorbikes into a sphere shaped metal cage to do the work of daredevils.
Signing autographs for eager fanboys after his act, an attractive woman (Eva Mendes) is shown at a distance. She approaches tentatively, while he appears to be searching. "Do you even remember my name?", she asks. "Romina. I like to call you Ro". He gives her a lift home on his bike; she declines his offer to hang out on his last night in town.
Curious, Luke goes back to her house the next day and is greeted by Ro's mother and the infant son that is the bi-product of the one-night stand with her the previous year. How could Ro keep something like that from Luke? Because her life is moving forward: a waitress at a local diner, she's back in school and has a new steady. But her past is unresolved. Sure, Luke is hot in the sac, but how exactly does he fit into the present picture?
Vowing to fulfill his duties as a father--if not a partner--Luke quits the traveling show, picking up work on the outskirts of town for a mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn). That proves to be the first in a series of bad and desperate choices Luke makes, which lead to him robbing a series of banks and physically assaulting Ro's new man.
Ryan Gosling gives another of his terrific internal performances, suppressing much, but saying little. It's one of the trickier roles of his career because he's playing a man with limited options who appears ill-equipped to conduct a real adult life for himself that includes providing for a family or even negotiating a relationship with a woman. And it's one of his bravest performances because he allows us to see into a deeply flawed man without judging him. Present at his son's baptism, he doesn't cry tears of sadness because he's lost his chance at Ro, but rather tears of shame because he didn't have the good sense to even call her and try. Wisdom comes suddenly.
The first act concludes with an electrifying chase sequence involving Luke and a young beat cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper) that results in shots being exchanged. From there, the internal police investigation into the shooting and then Avery's life in the immediate aftermath. His father is renowned state supreme court justice Al Cross (the dependable Harris Yulin), and he plants a political seed in his son, who is now a locally renowned hero. Of his son being shot in the leg, "A limp goes far in politics. Look at Roosevelt!".
Cooper delivers an excellent turn here as a man who balked at the chance to follow in his father's footsteps in order to become a cop instead. He grows increasingly frustrated with his desk reassignment in the basement, effectively as the guard who keeps watch over the evidence room. His story also hinges on a series of decisions he makes as Avery, the first one having to do with the shooting itself in which the state's district attorney (Bruce Greenwood) visits him at the hospital to get "first impressions" of the incident. That's a masterful scene because it reveals moral complexities that challenge us to remember exactly how the firefight went down, and it does so in a perfectly timed exchange using subtext.
If our first story introduces us to people who exist a little closer to the fringes, the second story involves us with people who are on the inside, people with authority, the well-connected. Though the two stories allow us to observe how both worlds operate, the constant thread boils down to moral choices, which all come to a head in our third story, where the sins of the fathers are revisited upon their sons.
Cut to "15 Years Later". High schooler A.J. (Emory Cohen) finds himself dumped on his father Avery by his ex-wife (Rose Byrne), just as he's running for state office. A.J.'s a tough, troubled kid and it appears he's too much for mom to handle. They both resent Avery for shutting them out in favor of his own career ambitions. At his new school, A.J. doesn't befriend the scrawny, introverted Jason (Dane DeHaan) so much as he preys on him. "You're one of them loner-stoners, aren't you? You like to get high, go to your room and draw."
A.J.'s smooth, cocky, funny; Jason's awkward, repressed, quiet, but he likes the sudden attention. They skip class in favor of getting high, where they talk and reveal a little more of themselves. A.J.'s parents have split; Jason's are still together, but it's not his real father.
Young male actors should study these scenes closely for how much is going on beneath the surface as impressionable, lonely Jason is seduced by the sexy promise of belonging, which this film wisely understands is as important as sex, if not more so, to the average teen male.
The consensus is that this story is the weak link. I beg to differ. Both young actors are indeed required to make their entrances only after two Academy Award nominees entering the primes of their careers have exited. But this film's energy remains constant through another series of important, heartbreaking choices that reflect the legacies of their fathers. If Brando and Stallone had a lovechild, it would be Emory Cohen, who has a raw, physical appeal. Dane DeHaan gives the kind of performance that reminded me of a young Tim Robbins in how comfortably he appears to wear guilt and torment.
This is a 2 hour and 20 minute film, but it doesn't feel long because of how rewarding it is to be in the hands of a great director, a level that Derek Cianfrance graduates to now after his assured 2010 debut "Blue Valentine". He moves things along with a purpose and an economy that reminded me at times of Sidney Lumet's transcendental crime sagas "Serpico" and the unfairly neglected "Prince of the City".
The screenplay, by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder is thematically ambitious, involving us in schemes both criminal and political, is fascinated with morality and personal consequences, yet at the same time observes and listens to its characters having real human moments. It's a testament to how good a screenplay is when it can ring poignancy and plausibility out of what is essentially a contrivance, or at least would seem to be if this were a lesser film.
And then of course there is Eva Mendes, so good in this role for all the things she doesn't say, but implies. She is torn between Luke and stability, and eventually chooses the latter, which is a good thing because her partner Kofi is quietly the only really good and decent man in a world of men looking for an easy way out.
Kudos to Mike Patton for his first full musical score; like the film itself, his sounds mourn, dread, and sometimes even hope.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is required viewing for all lovers of meaty dramas. It's also one of the year's best films.