Derek Cianfrance’s crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines resembles his critically acclaimed romantic drama, Blue Valentine. In Blue Valentine, the focus of the narrative is what happens to a couple after they fall in love. It explores an option that is the polar opposite of a romantic comedy’s usual happily ever after.
In The Place Beyond the Pines, the criminal, his deviant path and his eventual entanglement with the police, serve merely as catalysts from which the real focus of the film emerges. It shines a spotlight on the relationships between fathers and sons and explores the roles that destiny, circumstance and chance can all play in a person’s life.
Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle daredevil who works for a travelling carnival. One night he is reunited with a woman, Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he had a brief fling the last time he was in town. It’s obvious Luke thinks Romina has sought him out to recreate their last encounter, but when Romina rebuffs his subtle advances, he appears confused. Her rejection intrigues him enough to return to her home the following day and make the discovery that he has a son named Jason.
In spite of Romina’s initial protests, Luke insists on being a part of his son’s life. He immediately quits his job and takes a low-paying job for a local mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who takes an immediate liking to Luke after the two meet in the woods, each riding their motorcycles. Robin also offers him a home, a shabby trailer on his property.
It turns out Robin used to rob banks to make ends meet and offers to partner up with Luke, who is desperate to prove himself worthy to Romina by providing financially for his son. The two have a successful run, but after Luke is arrested for assault, Robin tells Luke he thinks they should stop. Luke becomes more determined than ever. He’s able to temporarily reduce any feelings of inadequacy when he performs a successful heist, all of which have depended on his stellar skill at maneuvering a motorcycle. Being a bank robber is where Luke derives his sense of self-worth. But, he’s reckless, and feeling Romina and his son slipping from his tenuous grasp, he tries a robbery on his own.
Luke is pursued and eventually gunned down by a rookie police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The two cross paths for mere seconds. It’s surprising when an actor of Gosling’s caliber isn’t the protagonist for the duration of the film. That’s just one of the ways that Cianfrance keeps The Place Beyond the Pines from devolving into a standard cops and robbers film.
Avery Cross is now the movie’s protagonist. Injured in the line of duty, and the man responsible for apprehending a quasi-famous bank robber, Avery is a local hero. It turns out Cross isn’t just some beat cop. He’s a law school graduate whose father (Harris Yulin) is a highly respected judge. Despite his father’s urgings to take advantage of his pedigree coupled with his highly lauded accomplishment, Avery takes a desk job working the evidence room.
He’s haunted by his encounter with Luke Glanton and by something he finds among the criminal’s belongings, a picture of Luke, Romina and Jason. Avery is married with an infant son the same age as Jason, but he demonstrates a lack of paternal instinct when it comes to his own child. Avery and his father don’t have an intimate, familial relationship. The elder Cross is more of a professional mentor.
Avery’s disillusionment regarding police work reaches an apex when he discovers a ring of crooked cops in his precinct. Avery’s awkwardness as a police officer; his efforts to try and work his way up the ranks on his own but failing, the futility of fighting his pre-determined path lead him to change his life’s trajectory.
The film leaps ahead 15 years, and Avery is running for attorney general. His father has died, and he and his wife are divorced. It soon becomes evident that he hasn’t had much of a hand in raising his son AJ (Emory Cohen) who is already a thug and petty criminal. Avery’s ex-wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne), asks Avery to let AJ come and live with him. She emphasizes how much their son needs a male influence.
This is where the movie begins to falter. It’s obvious that AJ is going to encounter Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHann), and like their fathers’, their relationship is going to end badly. It’s through Jason’s association with AJ that Ryan sets out to learn the truth about his biological father. Romina honored Luke’s request that she not tell their son about him. Raised by Romina’s long-time love Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Jason still feels a palpable kinship to Luke, a man he never knew.
The film practically pays homage to dysfunctional family dynamics. Avery becomes aware of Jason’s presence in his life and demands his son stay away from him. It isn’t clear what Avery is more fearful of, his son’s influence on Jason or vice versa. He does make reparations to Jason in his own way, something he tried to do 15 years earlier, but was then rebuked by Romina. Avery is ambivalent about his own son and his role as a parent.
Romina briefly reignites a physical relationship with Luke, even letting him spend the day with her and their son, only to banish him soon after. Luke is a dangerous, violent loner, but holds and comforts his baby son with an instinctual tenderness. AJ will always benefit from his father’s connections but never amount to more than a prop in a photo op.
Luke’s presence is felt throughout the entire film. He haunts Romina, Avery, Robin and eventually Jason. Pure biological connection fuels the anger that leads Jason to his eventual confrontation with Avery. This meeting is inevitable, and it proves cathartic for Avery and provides Jason with a sense of purpose and some clarity.
The female characters aren’t very well developed, and Byrne makes such little impact, her character is practically superfluous. Gosling proves The Notebook will probably end up being a career fluke especially if he works with directors such as Cianfrance, who is able to minimize his good looks. Dane DeHann also gives a standout performance as Jason. The film does drag on towards the end and crosses over a few times into pure melodrama. Still, The Place Beyond the Pines is an interesting look at responsibility, retribution and redemption.
The Special Features include: deleted and extended scenes, a featurette entitled Going to The Place Beyond the Pines, and feature commentary with co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance.