Sins of the Fathers: Steve Recommends The Place Beyond the Pines

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. That Biblical theme is at the heart of director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Befitting that theme, it is a dark, difficult, and thought-provoking film. It is also a gorgeous movie, beautifully shot and filled with strong pinesimages. It boasts solid acting throughout, especially from Ryan Gosling. It has all that and yet it falls short of being a truly great movie. However, it comes so close that it is well worth seeing. Even if it doesn’t quite work as a whole, many of the individual pieces are exquisite and Cianfrance should be applauded for his bold filmmaking.

The movie tells three inter-related stories, each taking about a third of the 140 minute runtime. The first segment, which is the strongest, features Gosling as Handsome Luke, a motorcycle daredevil working the carnival circuit. While making the annual stop in Schenectady, New York, he discovers that there is something new in town, his own infant son. He decides to quit the carnival and stay in town to care for his son, Jason, and the child’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes). There are two problems: he has no job and Romina has a new man  in her life. The first problem is resolved when he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who is impressed with Luke’s motorcycle skills and offers to train him as a mechanic. There is another problem: Robin lives outside of town and has little business at his repair shop. But he already has another kind of training in mind. He is a former bank robber and he is convinced that with Luke’s special skill set they can take up that trade together. He says that the key to being a successful bank robber is knowing to quit before things get too hot. He knows when this is, but Luke does not, and that leads to a load of trouble for Luke and lots of other folks. Luke is a complex character. He wants to do right by his son, after being abandoned by his own father, but he doesn’t know how. His paternal need to provide ultimately traps him in a life of crime, an activity that both excites and frightens him. That moral struggle is what makes this portion the richest viewing experience of the three stories.

The second story focuses on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who becomes a hero by being in the right place at the right time after Luke’s final heist goes awry. That encounter is a stark reminder of the dangers of his chosen profession. His wife and father would like to see him change careers, which he considers only because of the fear that his own young son could lose his father. However, he doesn’t want to give up on the nobility that he sees in police work. That sense of nobility is shaken when he discovers corruption in the police department. He has the opportunity to be a party to that corruption, but he refuses to take the path. Instead, taking the advice of his father, a former judge, he exposes the corruption and uses the occasion to advance his own political aspirations, first as assistant district attorney, and eventually in a run for attorney general of New York. In his case, choosing the right path and doing good becomes self-centered and possibly even sinful. The cost of his choices is revealed when the story jumps ahead fifteen years for the final segment. He is now divorced and barely has a relationship with his son. So, the son did lose his father, not to the dangers of police work, but to abandonment through ambition. The problem with this second act is that at times it feels like just another police corruption movie and so the tightly woven film begins to unravel just a bit. Case in point: casting Ray Liotta as one of the primary corrupt cops. Sure, Liotta can play such a role in his sleep, but that is the problem. I thoroughly enjoy him as an actor, and he is good here, but it feels too much like been there, done that.

In the conclusion, the two sons, Jason and A.J. cross paths in high school. We see the effects of the sins of the fathers visited on the sons. It is no surprise that they have both become drug users. Yet, while it fits, it also feels forced and clichéd. That feeling pervades this segment, making it the weakest of the three, which is not a good way to end a movie! Some of the writing here borders on the ridiculous. It causes you to wonder: are these people thinking at all? That could apply to either the characters or the writers. Another case in point: what father, especially one running for attorney general and whose son had just been arrested for drug possession, would leave that son unsupervised for the weekend so that he could host a party with underage drinking, rampant drug use, and unfettered sexual activity? I’ll tell you this, I wouldn’t want that guy as my attorney general. Such scenes cheapened the overall impact of the movie. However, I still found myself nearly on the edge of my seat wondering how the movie would end. It is well worth seeing.

A few final thoughts on the actors. Gosling gives a strong performance. It is fair to compare it to his work in Drive, but this is not a simple rehashing of that character. He gives Luke a dark and intriguing persona all his own. Cooper has the difficult task of following the smoldering performance of Gosling. I didn’t find him as mesmerizing as Ryan, and his role here isn’t as interesting as in Silver Linings Playbook, but it is still quite good. (A word of warning to those who are excited about seeing Gosling and Cooper together in a movie: they share about ten seconds of screen time!) If following Gosling is hard, the two sons have to follow both Gosling and Cooper! They do a commendable job. I especially liked Dane DeHaan who played Jason. This is a nice follow-up to last year’s Chronicle. He is a young actor to keep an eye on. Mendelsohn deserves special attention. As good as Gosling and the other actors are, I was most impressed with Mendelsohn. He gave a strong performance as the brother in charge of the criminal family in Animal Kingdom and he is even better here. Unfortunately, his appearances are relatively brief. The bulk of his screen time is with Luke in the first third of the movie, along with a reprise in the third act when Jason comes searching for the truth about his father. Mendelsohn makes the most of his time (and ours) by giving Robin more depth and nuance than any other character in the movie.

And a final thought on the director. Again I applaud his desire to make a great movie. Too few directors even try. There are so many wonderful elements in this film. I trust that he will one day make his masterpiece. I liked this better than his Blue Valentine. He is gifted at revealing the brokenness of his characters, but they seem to have precious few redeeming qualities. I like to be left with at least a sense of hope. Here the ongoing power of sin is evident, but, what do you think, is there hope in the ending of The Place Beyond the Pines?

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