Is life dictated by fate, free will, or a combination of both somewhere in the middle? The Place Beyond the Pines pushes the audience towards the fate end of the spectrum at the expense of more logical conclusions. Just because your father makes certain choices does not make it inevitable the son will confront the same situations. Fathers definitely define the situation and circumstances the child is born into, but they do not automatically dictate future decisions. Horrible children are products of supportive and balanced homes while saints may be born and bred from the roughest and most downtrodden of beginnings.
Director Derek Cianfrance creates three loosely connected films sewn into one overarching narrative about fathers and sons, the choices they make, and the consequences borne from those decisions. Precisely what conclusions the audience is supposed to walk away with concerning generational angst is unclear. Recurrent themes that pop up amongst each section include the idea and actions associated with fatherhood, class status and placement on the social and economic ladder, and the more melodramatic theme of the son paying for and reenacting the sins of the father.
Where are the women and the mothers? They show up in supporting roles but are shoved aside for the paterfamilias. “Pines” chronicles the Y chromosome with no room for maternal meddling from the ladies. The film’s first shot is a long tracking shot following Ryan Gosling’s shirtless torso as he walks from his trailer to an enclosed metal sphere to race a motorcycle upside down with two other riders. There are not too many other scenes out there that establish masculinity better than this set up.
Luke (Gosling) is more than rough around the edges; he is rough to the core. Tattoos drape his body including a small dagger dripping blood next to his eyeball. These symbols are not there to invite folks in. Travelling with a circus, he returns to Schenectady, New York and stumbles upon an old one-night stand, Romina (Eva Mendes), who gave birth to his son while he was away. The idea of fatherhood knocks Luke to the floor; his instincts kick in and he has a sudden urge to provide for a family he didn’t even know he had the day before.
No minimum wage job is good enough to provide for his son and try and win back his old fling from her new man played by Mahershala Ali; Luke is going to rob banks using his only talent, motorcycle racing. This abruptly leads us into the film’s second act where we follow Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop, who intersects with Luke. Avery also has a little boy at home and is about to enter into a world of his own fatherhood dilemmas. Avery does not have to deal with the problems of providing for his son and bank robbing; he gets police corruption and feelings of alienation. He is branded a hero yet feels completely empty on the inside.
The film’s third act follows Luke and Avery’s sons played by Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) and Emory Cohen respectively. By astronomical coincidence, these two get to know one another and unbeknownst to them, they act out the not so inevitable conclusions started by their fathers’ choices. In the real world, the kids have free will to chart their own courses in life; however, in Cianfrance’s Schenectady world, fate guides the boys and chooses for them.
Neither Luke nor Avery is a candidate for father of the year. The film’s best father is actually Ali who acts as a competent and loving stepfather to Luke’s kid, a fact completely lost on the child. Also, the character of Avery’s teenaged son does not work at all. This street tough 17 year old with a thick Long Island accented sneer would only spawn from Bradley Cooper and Rose Byrne on the movie screen. He is not believable for one second. Luke’s kid, Jason (DeHaan), is spot on though. He is aloof and curious, just like a boy who never knew his father.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a long film (around two and a half hours) with intertwined yet mostly simple story lines. Gosling’s leadoff segment is the strongest of the trio and could have be its own film if Cianfrance did not have such grander designs. Cianfrance reaches for an epic but the film lacks that overall dramatic punch in the gut it yearns for. It jumps forward in time but not back and forth like his earlier film Blue Valentine (2010). “Pines” is linear storytelling that may test the patience of a more attention-challenged audience, but is worth the effort.
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin