Dir. Derek Cianfrance. U.S.A.  2012.

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When you are somewhere in the middle of it, a great film like a great book often has a quality that may feel random and unfocused, devoid of structure or meaning. It is only when completed that you can impose on it a retroactive unity and see an aspect of its design that has not been apparent. Such is the case with Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, a suspenseful and gripping multi-layered drama that covers fifteen years in the life of its protagonists (Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling). A cautionary tale about the need to give up our bravura posturing and communicate our pain to others before the ripple effect of our actions can no longer be contained, it is a sprawling epic whose power can be better appreciated in its totality.

Set in a working class area of Schenectady, New York, the film opens as Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a brawny, tattooed man with bleached blond hair is performing a daredevil feat at a traveling carnival along with two other riders. They race around and past each other, often upside down in a metal cage defying gravity. Even though he is soft spoken with eyes that look right through you, Luke is tightly wound and always seems ready to erupt. While in town, he visits ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress he once had an affair with, only to discover that he is the father of her little boy named Jason.

Feeling drawn once again to Romina even though she is now living with a new man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke takes a low-paying job as a mechanic working with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a reformed bank robber, to make extra money to support his family. Unable to resist the temptation, Luke and Robin team up and begin to rob banks until a traumatic confrontation with a rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper) causes a drastic change in direction and Cooper’s character now becomes the film’s focus. Though no one can match the charisma of Gosling and the film does not maintain its high level of intensity throughout, each part of the film is engaging and powerfully-realized in its own way, utilizing an impressive ensemble cast that depicts real human beings, not cardboard cutouts.

Though Avery, with tons of ambition hidden beneath an outwardly calm demeanor, is celebrated as a hero, he must contend with his own feelings of remorse for an action performed in the line of duty as well as with having to deal with a corrupt cop, Deluca (Ray Liotta), who recruits him to help in his illegal acts. When DeLuca shows up with friends at Avery’s house without an invitation, the undercurrent of tension is palpable despite the camaraderie. The film then hurtles forward fifteen years when Luke and Avery’s volatile and alienated sons, AJ and Jason, played to perfection by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, are now teenagers at the same high school without knowledge of their past connection.

As the two boys grapple for some understanding of the circumstances that brought them together, the film has comes full circle, beginning and ending with a man on a motorcycle. One is going around and around in a cage while the other is going straight ahead towards an unknown destination with a new feeling of confidence and an air of transcendence.


Howard Schumann

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