I get the feeling that this is a film that’s a bit in love with itself, though I do tend to get that feeling whenever a running time greatly exceeds two hours. Thankfully, the extra investment of time is largely borne out by what’s on screen, with a few caveats that made me feel if anything that maybe a bit of extra time was needed. Maybe it should have been a mini-series. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of three distinct acts, the first two separated by a fairly short period of a year or two, the third taking place 15 years later. The central characters are Luke (played by Ryan Gosling) and Avery (played by Bradley Cooper), as well as their respective sons. Riding as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival show, Luke learns early on that he has a son with Romina (played by Eva Mendes), but when he tries to do what he thinks is the decent thing she resists his advances (she has already moved on), and he gets sucked into criminality. Avery enters the story later as a cop who gets mixed up in their relationship, and 15 years later their sons have to deal with the fallout. That’s really as much as I can say without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s essentially a ‘sins of the fathers’ scenario with added layers of class angst and existential yearning.
The film is primarily set in and around Schenectady in upstate New York. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article because its first paragraph reveals the more prosaic origin of the film’s title, though it’s not mentioned or even alluded to in the film itself. No doubt this is because ‘the place beyond the pines’ instead is intended to encapsulate a vaguely-felt desire of the central characters to escape their fates, where actions in their respective pasts continue to exert a hold over their present reality. If there’s something of a hint of ancient tragedy to the undertaking, this becomes clearest in the film’s third act, where the screenwriters pull the strings (rather too forcefully) to arrange a series of character confrontations leading to the denouement. Then again, there are points throughout the film where the events are over-determined in order to telegraph a thematic point, with entire characters seemingly crowbarred into the narrative in order to move it along (I wasn’t convinced by Ray Liotta’s cop, and even Avery’s son felt like a cipher).
Where the film is strongest is in the way it showcases class-based antagonisms. Each of the acts uses class signifiers as a significant form of divisiveness between the protagonists. Romina and her partner Kofi are certainly poor, but they are lawful, respectable, hard-working people who attain a certain economic stability by the third act, whereas Luke represents an embattled underclass (a sort of modern lumpenproletariat) with very limited options for generating the kind of income required to raise a child comfortably, hence his desperate turn to lawlessness. Avery meanwhile is a highly-educated professional doing work his father (who is a judge) clearly considers beneath their class, which puts him into direct conflict with his blue-collar colleagues on the police force. Once again, these divisions formed over the first two acts, are brought to a head in the third, and while the class distinctions are initially more fluid in the school environment, events propel each of the two sons towards a more fully-formed class consciousness (if that’s not overstating things a little).
Ultimately this is a good film which had the potential to be far more. If the first two acts are anchored by strong central performances from charismatic screen actors, they add up to very little without the third act, which is let down by overburdened dramatic manipulation. However, there’s a lot of potential here, and a lot to give hope that the director’s future films will build on this.
Director Derek Cianfrance; Writers Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 25 April 2013.