Published on April 15th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The Place Beyond the Pines 
Summary: An ambitious, modern epic about fathers, sons, and how the choices we make rarely affect only us. Derek Cianfrance has become of the most exciting new American directors with this film.
It’s exciting when ambitious filmmaking is attempted these days. Too often we see cinema listings full of impersonal, adapted, refried versions of movies we’ve seen a hundred times before. But when an original American film like The Place Beyond the Pines hits theaters, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Clearly director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance isn’t afraid of taking risk,s as his 2010 tale of doomed love Blue Valentine knocked audiences on their asses with a punch to the gut. While this movie may not carry the raw emotion of that one, The Place Beyond the Pines still swings a dramatic hammer and is overall a better, fuller film.
What really gives me a rush is seeing A-list Hollywood talent challenging themselves in indie movies like this. There is absolutely no financial obligation for actors like Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper to take difficult roles as they’ve done recently (Gosling in Blue Valentine and Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook). They could easily sit back and coast through blockbuster after blockbuster (*cough cough* Robert Downey, Jr.).
This film is daring for a number of reasons, most notably that it successfully switches its main character on three distinct occasions, taking the time to engage its audience with each new face.
The plot starts in 1990s Schenectady, New York, where a local-celebrity motorcycle daredevil named “Handsome” Luke Glanton (Gosling) is back in town with a traveling carnival. He finds out that since his last visit, an ex-flame named Romina (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his son Jason. Luke quits the carnival and eventually uses his “unique” skill set to become a bank robber known as the Moto-Bandit, attempting to thieve money in order to help Romina raise Jason.
After one too many stick-ups, Luke gets stopped by policeman Avery Cross (Cooper), who shoots and kills him, setting up the rest of the film’s narrative. You may think I’m spoiling the plot but Cianfrance handles this character kill-off Psycho-style, only about an hour into this 2.5-hour ride.
The Place Beyond the Pines follows a definite three-act storytelling structure but attempting to narrow down the film’s central character depends on which part of the story you’re examining. For the first hour, Gosling is the star, Cooper owns the second hour and for the third act the plot skips ahead 15 years to focus on their two respective sons and the unlikely friendship they develop.
It may sound like the movie tries to cram in too much story, but I never felt lost.
At its core, this film is about fathers and sons, and the need for a meaningful relationship to exist between them. Also, the notion that one single moment in time can ripple through generations, not only affecting those directly involved is a major theme.
The movie’s characters are essentially outsiders, marginalized from even those closest to them. Luke is a traveling wanderer who chooses a dangerous life of crime over a safe and steady income source; Avery leads a domesticated and honorable life but is a misfit at work because he refuses to overlook corruption among his friends on the job. Later, we see Avery’s son A.J. (Emory Cohen) trying to fit in by using a forced accent at school, while Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) feels increasingly isolated in his own home by lies from his mother and adoptive father.
Cianfrance uses some effective visual metaphors in driving home the feeling of confinement that surrounds each characters. Windows are a major motif in The Place Beyond the Pines. At various points in the film, different characters are seen staring through windows at their family members during pivotal moments. One of the most arresting such moments is when Luke pulls up to Romina’s house and stares through an upstairs window as she and her boyfriend hold Jason, leaving him literally on the outside of his son’s life.
A lot of credit is due to costume designer Erin Benach, who keeps us aware of the various time periods with perfect clothing choices. It’s the 1990s and Luke dons a Metallica t-shirt while Avery rocks a zip-up track jacket and Levi’s. The entire makeup team also did outstanding work by providing some effective tattoos and stunning moments of bloodshed.
The Place Beyond the Pines drives home the message of sons needing their fathers’ influence by showing the differing paths taken by its four main characters. Luke mentions that his father had almost zero involvement in his life, while Avery’s dad seemed to be a constant influence in his. Meanwhile, Jason grows up with a caring father in Kofi (Mahershala Ali) and A.J. grows up the member of a broken home.
I felt the movie was a little heavy-handed in its black & white treatment of the issue of children with divorced parents. What I took from the story was that if you grow up with no dad, you will be either a criminal or drug-addict — which obviously is not true.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic undertaking and shows Cianfrance as an exciting young filmmaker beginning to stretch his legs. It presents a relatable story that takes place over 15 years, effectively showing how we are rarely the only people affected by our choices. It reminds us that the sins of the father are often unfairly shackled to the child.
The Place Beyond the Pines
R | 140 min.
Premiere: Sept. 7, 2012 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
Distribution: Focus Features