Arts Review, Movies

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines featured image

Photo from

Derek Cianfrance, director and co-writer with Ben Coccio & Darius Marder

Starring: Ryan Gosling (Luke Glanton), Bradley Cooper (Avery Cross), Eva Mendes (Romina), Dane DeHaan (Jason Glanton), Emory Cohen (AJ Cross), Ray Liotta (Deluca), Ben Mendelsohn (Robin Van Der Zee), Rose Byrne (Jennifer), Mahershala Ali (Kofi), Bruce Greenwood (Bill Killcullen), Harris Yulin (Al Cross)


The buzz

When the film premiered at TIFF last fall, critical reception was generally favourable. That’s continued as the film had its limited release in the U.S.

There has been anticipation around the film, which is the second film in a row in which director Cianfrance and Canada’s “other Ryan,” Gosling have collaborated. Their first film together, the highly acclaimed Blue Valentine, featured Michelle Williams; this one has a much larger cast including Bradley Cooper, who is shedding his reputation as a superficial handsome lead, as well as Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin and another Canadian, Bruce Greenwood.


The genres

Melodrama; bank robbery thriller; multi-family drama


The premise

The film takes place in three acts.

Act One

Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman at a travelling circus, decides to stay in the northern New York town of Schenectady (which means “place beyond the pines” in Mohawk) after he finds out that has fathered a son, Jason, with Romina, a waitress he’d met the previous year. Romina is against Luke staying although she is still attracted to him. She has a new man, Kofi, who is happy to raise Jason as his son and is trying to avoid problems.

Luke is Trouble—that’s his attraction and his downfall. He finds a place to stay with Robin, who owns an auto-repair shop and (it soon turns out) used to rob banks. Quickly, the two form the “best duo since Hall and Oates,” with Luke robbing banks, racing off on his motorcycle, which he rides to a hidden spot where Robin has a truck. Luke, the motorcycle and the money hide in the truck as the police search in vain for the robber.

For a brief period, Luke leads the good life, giving money to Romina for their son while having an affair with her. It all goes wrong when Luke buys a crib for Jason and has a fight with Kofi when he tries to place it in his house. Romina wants nothing more to do with Luke. His response? To rob more banks. But Robin refuses to help and the next robbery proves to be the last. Luke’s bike breaks down; he’s spotted by the cops and in a shootout, he’s killed by a policeman, Avery Cross.

Act Two

Avery isn’t a regular cop; he has a law degree and his father is a prominent attorney and former judge. He’s treated as a hero for killing Luke but soon finds out that the police force is riddled with corruption. When he tries to let his commanding officer know what’s happening—that citizens are being ripped off by cops and that many of them are trafficking drugs—Avery and his family (wife and young son) are threatened. Eventually, he realises that he can only save himself by telling all to the district attorney and entrapping his fellow officers.

Act Three

It’s 15 years later. Avery is running for NY State Attorney General. He’s divorced from his wife and has recently taken custody of their 16-year-old son, AJ, and relocated him to a local high school. There, he becomes friends with Jason Glanton. The boys know nothing about the past; they’re both into drugs, rap music and hanging out. When they’re busted one night for possession, Avery arranges for both of them to be freed.

Angry, he tells AJ not to hang out with Jason but, of course, that doesn’t happen. Surprised that he’s gotten off so lightly, Jason finally starts asking about his father. He meets Robin, who offers a slightly sanitized version of what Luke was like. Then, through the Internet, he finds out that Avery killed his dad.

It all leads to a denouement in the pines, where Jason has to choose to forgive Avery and AJ (who is a manipulative rich kid) or kill them. Will justice be merciful or redemptive?


The performances

Cianfrance has a way with actors. Michelle Williams and Gosling were utterly convincing as a couple in and out of love in Blue Valentine; there were many flaws in the film but the acting was outstanding.

Clearly, Gosling and Cianfrance have developed a great rapport. Gosling’s performance doesn’t feel like one: he actually seems to inhabit the character of Luke Glanton. The authenticity he brings to the role reminds one of early Brando and, perhaps more exactly, the young Montgomery Clift. Gosling may not be using the Method in his acting but he certainly comes across as real.

No one else approaches Gosling’s prowess but Bradley Cooper continues his ascent into mature acting and Ben Mendelsohn offers a thoughtful interpretation of Robin, Luke’s bank robbing buddy. Even Eva Mendes, a limited performer, is fine in this film.


The direction and writing

This is Cianfrance’s third film and a huge step forward from Blue Valentine. The plot has an epic quality to it and the performances are excellent.

But…has he made it all the way? He’s certainly an auteur but is the film a complete success?


The skinny

There’s lot to admire in The Place Beyond the Pines. Not only is the acting phenomenal—particularly Gosling—but the attempt to reach beyond a typical narrative is to be commended. The film reaches for the Biblical with the sins of the fathers being visited on the next generation. It evokes class and racial differences, with the Cross family’s white wealth and privilege being contrasted with that of Jason Glanton, the physical product of a “white trash” biker and an Hispanic American whose stepfather is an African American. In the end, it’s Jason who holds the cards, having to decide whether he wants to be a criminal or someone new and different.

The film is so good, you’d like it to be more than it is. But it’s not The Godfather nor the brilliant French film The Prophet; it lacks the rigorous writing and ability to connect the violence in the story to larger political and emotional concerns. The Place Beyond the Pines is a film that aspires to be a critique of America. It comes close but doesn’t get there. In the end, it’s too melodramatic—not enough of a tragedy. Still, this is a significant film, the product of a number of creative talents. It’s definitely worth seeing—this weekend or soon.

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