‘A saga about poor decisions, and the heavy price attached to trying to do the right thing, about atoning and consequences‘ – Dara Higgins on The Place Beyond The Pines.
Derek Cianfrance’s new offering, featuring his favourite acting gonk Ryan Gosling, is a long one, a family saga if you will, spanning a decade and a half and dealing with the lives of two separate families, joined together by some wanton acts of criminality. I don’t normally get Ryan Gosling. What’s the appeal? His eyes are too close together, he has a weak chin and an accountant’s nose and he looks like someone I went to school with. Not anyone in particular, just someone; maybe a composite of a few different nobodies. But during this movie’s involving opening sequence, I feel I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, as his character, Luke, is playing with his flick knife and showing off his tattooed torso before walking out to meet his public. He is the travelling carnival’s main attraction, the wall of death riding, stunt performing, motorcycle hero. He exudes dangerous, infantile charm, and you suspect the violence is lurking just beneath the surface, as indeed it is.
He walks away from all that carny glamour, signing autographs for children and living in a trailer, when he realises that an ex-girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes) from the last time the show rolled into town, has secretly had his baby. Now he wants to try and be a father, despite the fact that there’s another man, Kofi, already installed in Romina’s life and that Luke has recently found himself without a job. He falls in with an old loser mechanic, Robin, but finds that trying to do the right thing by his baby, Jason, is costing more money than he’s ever going to make fixing the odd car here and there. The straight life isn’t working out, so urged on by Robin, the two plot to rob a bank. Old skool.
Luke has a penchant for this kind of skulduggery. The getaway is easy, after all, he’s a seasoned and excellent bike man, but he also appears to enjoy the other bit: waving a gun around, threatening people, that lark. There’s a suspicion that he may just be a latent psychopath, not really undermined by the act of violence that precipitates his downfall. Angry and ill prepared a bank job goes awry, and Luke comes face to face with the filth after an exhilarating, yet ultimately failed, getaway attempt.
A shoot out with rookie plod, Avery (played by the usually dull Bradley Cooper, who isn’t annoying here. It may have something to do with his hair, which is less obnoxious than usual), leaves neither man in optimal shape. As the first act ends, a different narrative takes over. From here it’s about Avery, the affect his injury has on his thinking, his career and his family, and how he deals with now being a desk jockey and a hero. Uncomfortable with finding himself amid the ordinary corruption of the local constabulary, he uses his hero status to expose it, and thusly, set himself up in political office. The pace of the movie also changes here, from the frenetic succession of circumstances that is Luke’s life, to the weighted decisions that are Avery’s. Yet it still works, and while it may seem convoluted, it isn’t really, as the thread is taken from one character and onto the next.
Before we know it, the shell suit is binned and 15 years pass. It’s sort of inevitable what should follow, that the two progeny of our protagonists are going to meet. We’re to believe the chance encounter in the film’s third act. I chose to take it on. It’s not that big a deal, really, it is after all a small town. Jason, now 17, is an outsider and stoner, and Avery’s kid, AJ is an inarticulate dick. They are drawn to each other through a mutual love of drugs and because of their outsider status. Obviously this union ends badly, as Jason is reaching an age where he wants to know more about this absent father and AJ is, well, a dick.
What may be harder to fathom are the actions of Jason, given that he’s from a stable home. Sure, his biological dad isn’t around, but Kofi has been there since he was baby, and his mother seems to have made her way in the world with the suburban house and whatnot. However, if a young man wants to investigate his provenance, you can be sure he will, and if the opportunity is there to make pain for the parents, the teenage boy will avail of it. That’s the way of the youth.
It plays out like a novel, a Jim Thompson one maybe. Indeed, it feels like an adaptation of a book that the filmmakers were warned would make a convoluted film. The acting is great throughout, from the stars, Gosling, Cooper, Mendez, to the brattish kids. There’s even a Ray Liotta bit, where Ray Liotta looks and acts like Ray Liotta. You know he’s a dodgy geezer because he’s Ray Liotta. There’s some nice directorial flourishes from Cianfrance, the opening sequence is pretty special, and the chase, filmed form inside the police car, is great. There’s also some neat mirroring throughout. All in all, it’s a decent flick, perhaps a little on the long side at two hours and twenty minutes, and it loses some of its propulsion once the motorbike and the bank robberies subsist. But then, it isn’t a bank heist movie. There’s enough of them around. It’s a saga about poor decisions, and the heavy price attached to trying to do the right thing, about atoning and consequences. It’s a heady mixture, which is just about pulled off.