DIRECTED BY DEREK CIANFRANCE
STARRING: RYAN GOSLING, BRADLEY COOPER, EVA MENDES, ROSE BYRNE, DANE DeHAAN, BEN MENDELSOHN, MAHERSHALA ALI, EMORY COHEN with BRUCE GREENWOOD and RAY LIOTTA
I write this line at about fifty minutes into ‘the Place beyond the Pines’ which has a runtime of about two and a half hours, and I believe what I am about to say will most definitely hold true for the rest of the film as well.
Roger Ebert would have loved to watch this one.
It is the life story of two different men with not-so-different lives and yet could easily be construed as being each other’s foil. One of them is ‘Handsome’ Luke, played by Ryan Gosling who more or less repeats his performance from the Nicolas Winding Refn chiller ‘Drive’. The other is Bradley Cooper who takes the next mature turn after ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’, playing one blue-eyed boy after another. If these two men have their own ghosts to both leave behind and strategically adapt into this feature, director Derek Cianfrance has one of his own in the riveting ‘Blue Valentine’, his debut film, that pretty much set the bar for him as a filmmaker. For him to have made the shift from the broken marriage in the old country house to the steel cages of the phenomenal ‘Ring of Death’ stunt is remarkable to say the least.
‘the Place beyond the Pines’ has Gosling play ‘Handsome Luke’, a motorcycle stunt performer. At the locus of brute aggression and the sense of responsibility and ownership that it brings along, Gosling is not far from home having played the ‘Driver’ in ‘Drive’, who too was, incidentally, a race-car driver who takes to crime. At the very beginning of the film, we are introduced to a relationship that would never quite take off – one that Luke shares with Romina (Eva Mendes). The tension in their little interaction tells us there has been more than meets the eye as Luke tells Romina he would not be seeing her for a year at least and hence would like to ‘get a beer.’ Romina declines saying she has a man in her life. Luke turns tail and goes his own way.
The next scene takes us to a year later when Luke hits Schenectady again as he said he would. He waits for Romina after his performance. He drops by at her place when she fails to show up. Romina now has a golden-haired infant that is, for all practical purposes, unlikely to have come from her then-partner Kofi (Mahershala Ali). The answer is simple. The baby is his. He has been named Jason and Luke gets the inimitable privilege of watching his kid’s baptism as a visitor at church.
A man knows his place as the place his son is going to grow. If it is Schenectady, then so be it. Luke tells Romina he knows what it is like to have grown up without a Father. We see what he is talking about. We also see he does not wish the same for his child. Luke wants to be around and also wants to provide for his child. In that we see his predicament. His presence requires him to let go of his only source of income – the circus stunt, which he chooses to quit; which puts a question mark on his next vow. How will he provide for his child? Enter Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a car mechanic who develops a dangerous fascination for Luke and his skills. In a sequence of sheer muscle and in awe of the same, Cianfrance introduces us to a partnership that compares itself to that of Hall and Oates. Luke is the man in need. Robin is the man who can provide, but he can provide only so much. He has a very simple principle, however, as a means to resolve this predicament: What you cannot have, you steal.
At this point, I need to give you a little insight into the town of Schenectady. It is a town of orthodoxy in the state of New York, which seems to have the landscape to go with its principles. It is a parish with a Mayor and a police force to protect its banks that are no casino-vaults unlike its step-sisters in Vegas as seen in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ or any other top-rung Hollywood heist movie. In the aftermath of Ben Affleck’s ‘the Town’, however, one could find resemblances between Charlestown, Boston and Schenectady, where both are places where there is as much of a place for the struggling thief as there is for the police-force-in-command who is ultimately going to prevail. Two brawls and a dire situation brings Luke head-to-head with Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The man takes a second to come to terms with his own fall, telling the woman (Romina) to not tell his son. And Avery Cross becomes the accidental hero, the man who had the pluck to stay right through a testing encounter as we walk into the second act.
Avery wakes up in the hospital with a bullet to his knee as his superior (Bruce Greenwood) presses him to part with detail – who shot first? “Did he raise his hand and did you shoot, or did he raise his hand and he shoots and you shoot? Is that what happened? He shot first? Well, it looks like you’re saying he shot first.” From that moment on, we see this sequence of events get written on the airwaves, about town; in stone, in short, leaving behind a legacy Avery can only half-heartedly defend.
I come back to the point where I said it is easy to construe Avery as Luke’s foil and vice-versa. But then while they could be men of different make, we find they are governed by similar ideals and, hence, find themselves in the same predicament. If Luke finds himself responsible for an unplanned pregnancy and a child as a consequence, Avery is the cause and effect of his own reputation, much to his discomfort. Both deal with their failure to be the men they would ideally have liked to be. Avery finds failure in his success. Luke had found his in his inability to be a good Father. Only time can salvage these men from their 'failures.'
‘The Place Beyond the Pines’, thus, deals with the simplest, yet the deepest-rooted desire for a man to be someone whom his son could look up to, and for the son to be someone his Father could/could have been proud of. The last time I saw a film convincingly portray both this aspiration and the failure to meet it is the 2007 James Mangold adaptation of the classic western ‘3:10 to Yuma’. The only thing the ranger wants is for his son to look up to him. It is the only thing he asks of the criminal he escorts across the country. It is the only thing the criminal cannot give, on his part.
To heed to the call of a film that asks for its men to showcase both their insecurities as well as their little bursts of honest admittance needs some nuanced performances from its actors. Gosling as the ruffian who tries too hard to scrub the grease off of his permanently-tattooed self is only too comfortable playing his part. Cooper too, on the other hand, as the boy who doesn’t deserve to be in the league of men and knows it too, delivers. They both are complemented by Cianfrance’s shot-taking, which caresses its men like lambs who are only too tender for film-butchers to sharpen their knives for. We have long shots of extreme close-ups of either of these men, both blue-eyed, both star-gazing with a loss of an idea on what they could better do. In that way, it is prudent and well-deserving of Cianfrance to say that the director plays the third man burdened with the weight of an immense responsibility – that of having to tell the stories of these two other men in the most striking manner possible. And in that, Cianfrance makes it a three-on-three. All men deliver.
The third act of ‘The Place beyond the Pines’ is no big surprise. If there is a reason as to why I shall not discuss it, it is to save time, both yours and mine. Let me put it this way. Your great deeds will not just end with you. Daniel Plainview has his adopted son to answer to – the one he renders deaf at about an hour into ‘There will be Blood’. Both Avery and Luke have sons. It is only about time that one will have to answer the other, and needless to say, ‘The Place beyond the Pines’ takes that time to put its men (Avery, at least) in a position where they will have to confront their demons. It is a faithful revival of the fabled morality question, which we saw glimpses of in films like ‘Infernal Affairs’ (remade into ‘The Departed’ in 2005) and Affleck’s ‘Gone Baby Gone’. It is that film which, if you are any human being who can even remotely place yourself in either of these men’s shoes, is sure to knock your socks off. Cianfrance puts a gun to your mouth and hisses, asking you to open. It is a test that asks you to yield. In all likelihood, he won’t shoot. For you will pass his test. You will yield.
I am aware I have left out two of the most significant characters who also are backed by brilliant performances from their respective actors, both women. I am also aware that I have called ‘The Place beyond the Pines’ a film ultimately about its men. It does not mean that the women do not play a significant part. Michelle Monaghan was about as vital to ‘Gone Baby Gone’ as Casey Affleck was. The film, however, was his predicament that consequentially became hers too. Likewise, the women in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ (Romina and Mrs. Cross) find themselves effected by the men in their lives rather than the other way around, ‘Men’ here not limited to Luke and Avery, just so you know. There is also the underlying legitimacy question. While Romina bears and gives birth to Luke’s bastard child, Mrs. Cross (Rose Byrne) is Avery’s lawfully-wedded wife. It takes not just a refreshing perspective, but also an incredible amount of sensitivity and care to handle the above-mentioned detail. In that, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ finds itself in safe hands.
Perhaps there would be a time when this film would be discussed as the next feature after Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ that carried itself on skill, sensibility and raw adrenaline with its lead characters sharing screen-space for the tiniest possible span of time. There would be a time when Gosling and Cooper would match the stature of the film-giants in Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in which event ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ would be seen at par with ‘Heat’, with the likes of ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and ‘Gone Baby Gone’ nearby. For it is nothing short of a classic - all it has to do is bide its time. Much like Jason.