First released in 2013, the underrated (and, as far as end-of-the-year awards ago, underappreciated) The Place Beyond The Pines is actually three cinematic melodramas in one. Much like a great novel, this movie is split into multiple pieces with each part telling a different part of a larger story. It’s an interesting and ambitious concept, the type that we sometimes fear that audiences are no longer capable of appreciating.
The first third of the story centers on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who performs at state fairs. During one such fair in upstate New York, he meets and has a brief affair with Romina (Eva Mendes, giving an excellent performance). When he returns to New York a year later, Luke discovers that he is now a father. Luke quits the fair and decides that he wants to be a part of his son’s life but Romina, who is now in a stable relationship with a good man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali), asks him to stay away. Determined to be part of his son’s life and also looking to win back Romina, Luke stays in town and gets a job working with Robin (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn). Robin owns an auto garage and, as he explains to Luke, he also used to be a bank robber. Soon, with Robin’s help, Luke is robbing banks and sending the money to Romina.
Luke’s story is probably the strongest in the film. Ryan Gosling is charismatic as the dangerous yet likable Luke and he and Eva Mendes have a lot of on-screen chemistry. Ben Mendelsohn brings yet another one of his trademark burned out characters to life and Mahershala Ali is sympathetic as Kofi, a man, who despite being good and responsible, is simply no Ryan Gosling.
The second part of the story deals with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the cop who chases Luke after one of his bank robberies. Avery is the politically ambitious son of a former judge (Harris Yulin) and, much like Luke, he also has newborn son. When Avery is originally hailed as hero for his pursuit of Luke, Avery’s feelings are far more ambivalent. It gets even more difficult for him when he catches some of his fellow cops (led, of course, by Ray Liotta) stealing the money that Luke sent to Romina. When Romina rejects Avery’s attempt to return the money to her, Avery is left with little choice but to try to take down the crooked cops himself. It’s the only way for him to clear his conscience.
And, finally, in the third part of the story, teenager Jason Cankham (Dane DeHaan) meets and befriends Avery’s son, AJ (Emory Cohen). What neither one of them realizes is that Jason is Luke’s son. The interesting thing here is that the two sons have, on the surface at least, turned out to be the exact opposites of their father. Jason is the good kid while AJ is probably one of the most despicable movie teenagers of all time. When Jason learns the truth about both of their fathers, he has to decide whether he’s his father’s son or if he is his own human being.
As you might be able to guess from the above plot description, The Place Beyond the Pines is a big epic of a film and, perhaps not surprisingly, the end results are intriguing if occasionally uneven. The film starts out so strongly with Ryan Gosling roaring down empty roads on his motorcycle that it’s hard for the rest of the movie to live up to that opening’s promise. And yet somehow, the film manages to do just that. Even the parts of the film that didn’t particularly intrigue me — like the whole subplot with the corrupt cops — were saved by the efforts of a perfectly chosen cast. The third and final part of the film provides the perfect climax, helping us to both understand the legacy of Luke Glanton and Avery Cross but also to understand why both of their stories are important, both as individual tales and as parts of a greater whole.
The Place Beyond The Pines may not be perfect, not in the way that a film like Winter’s Bone is perfect. However, we should still be glad that films like it are being made.