The Place Beyond the Pines, co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, is an ambitious if flawed film that manages to be the definitive film about Schenectady, New York (the title is the Mohawk translation of the name of the city) and a reminder of the old saying, “The sins of the father are visited upon the son.”
I say that with some trepidation, because discussing the plot is difficult without spoiling the hell out of it. I’ll give it a try, but be wary.
The film consists of three distinct acts, but are connected. It reminded me of a common thing in literature now–the book of short stories that share characters. The first act is about Ryan Gosling as a motorcyclist who does stunts for a traveling carnival. When he’s back in Schenectady, he runs into an old girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and learns that she has had his son. He quits the carnival to stay nearby, and gets a job with a shady mechanic (a wonderful Ben Mendelsohn). This mechanic suggests a solution to Gosling’s money woes would be robbing banks. Gosling finally agrees, and gets hooked on it, but we all know this won’t end well.
The second act concerns police corruption, a kind of suburban Serpico. Bradley Cooper is a laywer who has idealistically joined the police force, and becomes a public hero. But he finds that the cops who befriend him are dirty, all the way up to the chief of police. Cooper struggles with what to do, and consults his father (Harris Yulin), a judge.
The third act concerns two teenagers fifteen years later after the first two acts. They are the sons of Gosling and Cooper, but don’t know the past connection. Cooper’s son is an absolute zilch, even though he has grown up in wealth. Gosling’s son (a very good Dane DeHaan) tries to find out about his father, and we can feel the building tragedy.
There’s a lot to like here, and it’s definitely worth seeing, with some caveats: this is a depressing film, keeping with Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine (but it’s much better than that film). There’s little in the way of levity here, and one can’t help that the use of Schenectady is kind of back-handed compliment (I believe it was shot there), since the place is so important to the story that it feels as if Cianfrance is condemning the place. Or at least the kind of city it is–a once thriving industrial city, now rusting away.
Also, though the three acts are connected by characters, I just didn’t feel the connection until the third act. Maybe that was Cianfrance’s bit of misdirection, but I don’t really want to be fooled in a movie like this. The swerve that happens between Gosling and Cooper’s sections is dizzying, and it’s a while before we can let the first go and focus on the second.
Gosling is not one of my favorite actors but he’s fine here–this is the kind of role that suits him. The very first shot of him is his six-pack abs, which may be his best acting feature. Cooper is excellent.
My grade for The Place Beyond the Pines: B.