Families. Can’t live with them can’t shoot them. Some drive you to storm from the dining table screaming ‘I hate you! I hate you!” because you can’t get your ears pierced. Other families have rather more serious difficulties.
‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ centers on the later kind.
It’s a gripping multi-generational tragedy that deals with the consequences of our actions for those around us and those that come after us.
In brief and without giving too much away, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle cage rider who turns to bank robbery to support his son by Romina (Eva Mendes)
This fateful decision brings him into contact with cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) with tragic consequences.
Cross becomes the center of the plot from this point on and seems on the surface to be as good as Glanton was bad.
However as the film develops we begin to see that both men are flawed as Cross reveals himself to be a less than effective father, a fact that comes into play during the last segment of the film which takes place 15 years after the initial action.
Cross has by this time sired a wildly out of control son, A.J., who in a strange twist of fate is rather reminiscent of Glanton. In marked contrast to Luke Glanton’s boy, Jason, who has now grown to be the ‘good’ son.
This, with the inevitability of Greek Tragedy, leads to the final scenes of violent confrontation.
In the wrong hands with the wrong cast this could have been an almighty mess but it isn’t in no small part to Gosling who seems to be rapidly turning into Steve McQueen. In ‘Drive’ he played a fiendishly skillful racecar turned getaway driver. In this he plays an amazingly skillful motorcyclist.
Not content with aping McQueen’s own passion for motoring, he’s also busy developing a very minimalistic McQueen approach to dialogue.
In this film we’re lucky to get more than two words out of him, words that are likely to be delivered with a quite enormous pause between them (I wonder if he’s the same in real life. If you asked him his name would you have to wait a minute for him to get one of the two words out of his mouth before waiting a further 60 seconds for the rest of it)
Yet it works. Brilliantly. The tension created by Goslings dysfunctional character is often unbearable. Every time he’s on the screen we’re waiting for him to damage himself or somebody with his tightly coiled, barely repressed rage at the world.
It’s a performance that is almost, and sorry for this over used phrase, ‘Brandoesque’. Several times during his performance I’d had to cover my eyes out of fear for what was going to come. I only ever do that during horror films, so that perhaps best expresses the power of his performance.
Eva Mendes as his poor abused wife is also surprisingly good. There is of course the natural cynicism that comes with seeing the gorgeous, pouty Mendes suddenly looking all unmade up and dowdy…but still pretty hot for all that. Yet the honesty of the performance wins us over.
Bradley Cooper, who takes charge of the second segment of this strange and beautifully conceived plot, has his work cut out keeping the film on the rails post-Gosling but he does it with the sheer power of his niceness. If Gosling is McQueen, Cooper is a blue collar Jimmy Stewart, a likeable regular guy who knows right from wrong, a boy scout in man’s clothing. Or so it appears. But eventually we see this goodness as a type of self-righteousness that will not only sell-out bad cops but also his wife and son in the pursuit of this ‘good’.
I’ve read that some have seen the film as a comment on the failings of contemporary America but on this level the film doesn’t really work for me as the flaws of the main characters are too universal and timeless. The story might have taken place in many western countries over the past 50 years and still retained verisimilitude.
For me the message of the film, if there is one, is it’s impossible to life a live that doesn’t have bad consequences for someone, no matter how hard we try. All we can do is admit our mistakes and move on.
Just like Jason Glanton who rides off into the west on his newly brought motorcycle in the film’s final scene to an uncertain future..