The Place Beyond the Pines is a mesmerising film; a long, convoluted story of cross generational responsibility, corruption, the break down of moral codes, the value of an education and the connections it can offer, and the importance of both apology and absolution before things can move on.
Told in two parts over a 17 year period, the credibility of the story line is sometimes stretched. But mostly, this saga of the impact of fathers’ behaviour on their children’s lives is moving and powerful.
Ryan Gosling plays a heavily tattooed, carny motor bike rider, Luke, a drifter and a grifter, who is surprised when he learns that he is the father of a one year old son, conceived a year earlier when the carnival had been in Schenectady (New York State). Wanting to do the right thing by the baby’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes) and possibly yearning for some kind of stability himself, the almost illiterate “Handsome Luke” decides to stay in town to get to know his son and to try to provide for him and his mother.
But in the year gone by, Romina has taken up with Kofi, and she lives with the baby and her own mother in Kofi’s house. Luke is not welcome, despite Romina’s feelings for him, and his best efforts fall short of his aim of providing a stable income that can buy things for the baby.
Luke comes across the greasiest of grease monkeys, Robin, played by Ben Mendelsohn. They meet after Robin sees Luke riding his motorcycle at breakneck speed through the pine forest. They race along together, reminiscent of the forest chase scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, with branches and leaves thwacking the cameras as they speed by. But there are no special effects here. Just full throttle speed, dare devil moves and a recklessness born from a tough-arsed attitude to life. Needless to say, Robin soon develops plans for Luke’s riding skills and those plans are on the wrong side of the law.
The subsequent story arc leads us to newby beat cop, Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper. Handsome, clean, fit, Avery is injured in the line of duty and called a hero, then learns first hand how easily others’ corruption can trick you, catch you off guard, and reel you in. Avery turns to his judge father for advice, for whom he has previously expressed some disdain. Together they plot a way for Avery to take on the corruption head first, and he goes on to build a political career that leads in time all the way to the top.
The compare and contrast of the two story lines is simple – Avery has privilege and education versus Luke has poverty and homelessness, and all of the attendant social and emotional baggage in both stories is played out. But when the two sons of these men meet up at school, the third act of the film (in itself a free-standing story) seems to be showing us just how the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on their children, despite their best efforts for this not to be the case.
Avery’s son, AJ is a selfish, manipulative thug, who only knows how to have a good time. Jason, the son of Luke, has grown up without knowledge of his father (although Kofi does a good Darth Vader impression – “I am your father” – and it’s true – he was there when Jason was born and has stayed with Romina, and had another child with her). Regardless, Jason goes looking for answers about his father, and after learning the story, the denouement sees him swapping his pushbike for a new motorbike. Although he’s never been on one before, his natural, inherited talent sees him through. He heads off beyond the pines.
The establishing shots of Schenectady’s town hall clock surrounded by pine forests place the story and are used several times. The pines are shown surrounding the town, and bad things happen in that pine forest – it’s almost primordial, reminiscent of when “monsters” lived in the deep, dark woods. Avery refuses to go deep into the forest with a colleague due to his fear of what might happen to him in there. And later on he again ends up in the forest, in danger.
On taking responsibility for his actions, though, he is able to escape, and to move on in his life, both in terms of his relationship with AJ, in which is he absent much of the time, and also in relation to the actions that affected Luke. This seems to break the nexus, and allows Jason to move on, beyond the pines.
The acting is strong in this film, and it’s possible to believe in the characters and their motivations, despite the convoluted storyline. The women’s roles are minor – this is about boys and their dads, is blood thicker than water, what do we inherit and what do we learn, what makes a good dad, and ultimately, at what time do we take responsibility for our actions, accept the past, shake off its consequences, and move on to the next phase. Avery tries to protect Jason, but is the apology he offers the key that unlocks Jason’s future? Will it be bright and shiny beyond the pines?
Further info: http://focusfeatures.com/the_place_beyond_the_pines