“He’s my son and I should be around him. I wasn’t around my dad and look at the… way I turned out.” The film opens with the speaker, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), shirtless and bedecked with a tattoo scheme in which White Chocolate likely served as inspiration. He paces about a small utility room twirling and flipping a butterfly knife, before being called by an unknown voice that, “it was time”. Without having yet changed frames, director Derek Cianfrance’s camera follows Luke, who dons a sleeveless Metallica Ride the Lightning t-shirt, walks outside and through a carnival toward a large tent which contains a small cage ball, where two other motorcycle stunt riders await. Luke silently slides into a jacket and helmet and mounts his bike. The riders, to much fanfare before a crowd in awe, ride into the cage and start driving quickly in circles and upside down, the centrifugal force drawing them within inches of each other until the show (as well as the single shot) ends.
I’m a sucker for great opening scenes. An extended single camera take can quickly become a cheap gimmick if done poorly. When utilized well, it takes a while to notice – if the viewer notices at all. The opening sequence of The Place Beyond the Pines draws you in with this method, and conveys the story with visual imagery and no dialogue. Climaxing with the “Globe of Death” is an ambitious feat and was not merely included to suck the audience in, but to send a message about what kind of film Cianfrance intended this work to be. The problem is, the story which follows slips and stumbles like Luke tripping and slicing himself with the butterfly knife.
After the show, Luke runs into Romina (Evan Mendes), a fling from the previous year whom he had not talked to since. He discovers he has a baby son, Jason, via their dalliances, and as a result quits the carnival tour and remains in Schenectady (Mohawk for “Place Beyond the Pines”), New York, to attempt to provide for his son. Romina however already has a boyfriend, Kofi, who seems as clean as the spotless Bronco he uses to take Romina and Jason to Jason’s baptism. Romina has to work as a waitress, though she and her mother and her son live humbly and contentedly in Kofi’s house. Luke is blind to this, however, and demands the attention and affection of Romina and Jason, which is granted half-heartedly.
Luke takes up a job in an auto shop, but quickly discovers the minimum wage will not provide for Romina and Jason to the extent he wishes. Given his daredevil skills, he starts robbing banks, taking advantage of being able to get away quickly, nimbly, and unidentified under his helmet astride his dirt bike. The chase scenes that follow the bank robberies are impressive, as most of the shots are filmed riding shotgun in pursuing cop cars.
At this point, what will come next starts to take shape in our minds – perhaps. We know Bradley Cooper, a police officer, will make an appearance soon. He will try to hunt Luke down, Luke will crash or get caught or have to flee Romina and Jason. We first meet Avery Cross (Cooper) as he starts chasing Luke after another robbery into a residential home. Luke rushes upstairs, locks the door, calls Romina telling her never to tell Jason who he was, just before Avery kicks down the door and fires a shot into Luke’s chest. As he falls out a window to his death below, Luke gets a shot off and hits Avery in the knee.
Not an out of the question plot-twist, except for the timing. This is but the first act of the movie. The second act is less interesting. The narrative follows Avery after the incident, recovering from the injury and being recognized a hero, which also draws the attention of a bad cop (played by Ray Liotta, because of course), who tries to bring Avery into the fold of his corrupt operations. Avery, who was also a law school graduate, exposes the ring, and politicks busting the ring into an assistant DA gig. During this time, Avery is shaken-up somewhat from killing Luke because he also has a son the age of Jason, whom Luke left behind, and that’s really the only significant plot point of note in the second chapter, but hardly worth the time and effort.
This parallel of two sons is picked-up in the final act which jumps fifteen years. Avery Cross is running for district attorney, but his now high school-aged son, AJ, (well played by Emory Cohen) is an afterthought in his father’s eyes – and it shows, as AJ is a deadbeat at school who likes himself some weed and ecstasy. AJ meets Jason (Dane DeHaan), who the viewer quickly deduces is the same Jason who was Luke’s son. AJ and Jason become friends, get in drug trouble, and Jason slowly begins to piece together who his father was, and who AJ’s father is and what he did. Without further spoiling specifics, the third chapter was a bit of a disappointment as well. The two pay-offs are Jason discovering who his real father was, but this new insight was poorly executed and viewers are given little reason to care. On the other hand, circumstances appear to draw Avery and AJ closer together, but this was on the cusp of Avery being elected District Attorney, and we know how those children of politicians stories end.
There are many themes Cianfrance deals with throughout the entire film – and this is how he distracts and cuts himself with the butterfly knife, especially with the distinct three chapter structure. Is The Place Beyond the Pines about fatherhood? Probably. Both fathers make bad choices in raising up of their sons. Luke adopts a Walter White-esque justification of “I need to provide for my family” attitude, when in reality he really just “did it for me” (in this case, kicks and adrenaline). Avery becomes distracted by his career, leaving his son to fare for himself. But while exploring this paternal motif, Cianfrance zig-zags about like Luke racing from the Schenectady’s finest, dabbling in fate, sacrifice, self-absorption, corruption, et al. These coupled with nuanced cinematography that sometimes worked (opening scene/chase scenes as well basic dialogue) and visual imagery (Ride the Lightning t-shirt) made the ride sometimes enjoyable, but the ambitions crashed – and I wished as a viewer I had just looked away.