The “sins of the father becoming the sins of the son” is the heart of The Place Beyond the Pines, and the story begins with ne’er do well circus stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling) learning that he has a baby boy. The mother, Romina (Eva Mendes) has kept it from him and lives with another man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who is everything Luke is not: stable, level-headed, and fiercely protective of his step-child Jason
Luke is nonetheless profoundly moved to learn about his child and quits his job to stay in rural Schenectady, NY and become a father. In his desperation to provide for his baby, Luke falls in with garage owner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) and soon finds himself robbing banks to raise money.
This first portion of the film is rather a modern retelling of Jean ValJean’s turning to a life of crime out of desperation to feed his child. The Inspector Javert of The Place Beyond the Pines is Stanford-grad and politician’s son Avery (Bradley Cooper). Like Luke, Avery also has a baby boy and difficulties with his home life, and like Luke, Avery has a difficult relationship with his own father.
In a Hitchcockesque transition, the film has a dramatic crescendo, a scene where the sins of both Avery and Luke are exposed, with fatal consequences. Avery is then blackmailed by bad cop Deluca (Ray Liotta) and driven by his own ego, decides to fight the rampant corruption in the police force. The results are ultimately good for Avery, but not for his boy AJ, who grows up with a father who is never present.
Move forward fifteen years and Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) meets Avery’s now troubled son AJ (Emory Cohen) at the local high school, though neither realizes the karmic importance of the other in their lives. Yet.
You can guess what transpires from this point, but while there weren’t any great surprises in the narrative, The Place Beyond the Pines nonetheless has a certain satisfying inevitability in the final act, a certain sense of closure and completion.
Problem is, there are many scenes where characters act inexplicably, including Romina’s continued interest in Luke and her willingness to string him along, intimating that given the chance, she’d leave Kofi and run away with Luke, bringing both baby Jason and her mother Malena (Olga Merediz) along too. Then there’s another scene where Luke and Kofi fight and Malena’s reaction is to meekly go downstairs, not call the police. Huh?
The lack of any real dramatic tension comes from the fact that all the characters in the film behave predictably and, while not quite one-dimensional, certainly are not complex, fully realized individuals. Corrupt policeman Deluca, for example, is a role that Liotta has played so many times, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he actually is a corrupt police officer in real life, and he’s also been far more threating – and effective – as a bad cop in films like Cop Land or Goodfellas.
Luke was also a role that we’ve seen Ryan Gosling play before on film, most recently as the similar quiet, brooding, honor-bound criminal in Drive. In fact, Gosling didn’t demonstrate any emotional range in the brutal Gangster Squad either. Cooper similarly walks through his role, far less engaging as Avery than he was in Limitless or the recent Silver Linings Playbook.
Like a horror film where nubile teens escape into the woods, there’s a certain inevitability about The Place Beyond the Pines, and when coupled with the safe performances of the cast and the benign upstate New York setting, the best I can say about this film is that it’s exploring a fascinating and profound concept in a safe and somewhat satisfying manner.