I had heard The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) compared favourably to Derek Cianfrance’s earlier film Blue Valentine (2010). I thought the latter was quite good when I saw it last year, so I wondered whether his new effort would measure up. I was especially dubious as the trailer looked like a (stunt) vehicle for capitalizing on Gosling’s success in Drive (2011). But the positive reviews were from sources I trusted, and they were right: The Place Beyond the Pines is better.
That its trailer fails to do it justice is unsurprising. At 140 minutes and with an understated, character-driven approach, it’s a difficult film to summarize or pin down. Trailers are by nature reductive and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but the dissonance is particularly egregious here. It implies that the film is a cop-and-robber caper with Cooper’s character in pursuit of Gosling’s, foregrounding some particularly painful lines in a way that makes little sense in the trailer, and is in no way representative of the film. The trailer cuts back and forth among the incidents to provide the illusion that the characters are in sustained conflict with each other. Nothing could be further from the film’s slow, novelistic, structural beauty, in which the action is strictly linear in an unusual and refreshing way. The characters’ true conflicts are never with each other, but always with themselves and society. If it’s not clear, despite the off-putting trailer and the film’s odd superficial similarities to Drive, this is no thriller―in fact it has more depth and drama than Blue Valentine, which was short on neither.
Although the film relies much more heavily on character than on plot, the acting is surprisingly muted, and at times mediocre. I’m not a fan of Gosling. He does, whether by luck or judgement, manage to appear in good films. But these films are good in spite of him rather than because of him, and his performance here is as insipid and anaemic as ever. His role in Blue Valentine is inverted―rather than stepping in to raise another man’s child, he unwittingly leaves a child to be raised by another man―but he’s equally flat as a character.1 Other reviewers seem to find the opening the most entertaining part, apparnetly because it contains the most action, and they find Gosling’s role as Luke strong. I actually found the film overall to gain confidence and strength (though not action) as it progressed, and Luke’s passivity and weakness to be the strength of the opening act.
Viewed this way Gosling’s lacklustre performance becomes fitting. Luke is weak, and regardless of his outbursts or violence, he evinces a Dostoevskian vulnerability to inexorable societal forces. Like Raskolnikov he’s a vehicle for a profound consideration of free will and the individual’s relationship to society, raising some of the same difficult questions that Dostoevsky did. Can the strength of your will or your determination to go to any lengths (including commit calculated violence) allow you to dictate the outcome of your life? Does attempting to escape from societal strictures cause them to bind you more tightly? Do sudden outbursts constitute legitimate noncompliance with one’s fate, or are these, too, determined by insuperable forces of history? Can the abstract debt of what society owes a person ever be collected, or are there inevitable catastrophic repercussions for any attempt to right injustices by force? If so, do such forces apply equally across social classes? To what extent can motivations or circumstances justify a crime, mitigate it, or make it comprehensible to society? Like Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, Cianfrance investigates free will, moral boundaries, and redemption in a challenging and nuanced way. That neither Raskolnikov nor Luke is likeable, nor sometimes even comprehensible, is immaterial to either endeavour.
Bradley Cooper’s acting is better in his role as police officer Avery Cross, but again, the film does not rely much on his abilities. If the first act is an investigation into how violence becomes both inescapable and ineffectual in working-class American life (a bit like The Fighter or The Town) the second act moves into the realm of police corruption, reminiscent of Serpico, and it is at least as morally nuanced as Lumet’s film. The message seems at first to be that no good deed goes unpunished. But inflected by the first act it becomes a meditation on corruption, justice, and retaliation. The characters in the second act seem more free, and certainly the punishment for violence is not as swift or grievous as it is for the working class. Yet these men are no less subject to brutality and hostility. In this class too (just as when Luke visits his friend about his bike), violence demands violence, as happens explicitly in when Avery is introduced and encounters Luke. But physical violence of this nature is clearly quite rare for their class―Liotta’s despicable corrupt cop jokes that Avery is lucky that he got to shoot a white man.
Rather than bodily harm, it is the the punitive response to Avery’s pursuit of righteousness which shows that violence is no less present in his life despite his privileged upbringing. Unlike Luke, Avery does everything right, and yet like Luke, he becomes a victim of circumstances, forced into a corner where he must commit career suicide or savagely retaliate. It is worth remembering that it is his father, a politician, who advises him to do the latter. Luke, who had neither the material advantages nor the parental guidance of a successful father, is nonetheless motivated purely by filial piety, in contrast to Avery, who has all the benefits but struggles to relate to either his wife or his son. Avery needs to be told how to respond to injustice and only does so when he has no other choice. In a way, then, Luke does the wrong things for the right reasons (stealing to provide for his family), and is punished for it; Avery does the right things for the wrong reasons (whistle-blowing because he has no other option), and is rewarded for it. Of course, as the film shows, things are never quite so simple, and all violence is repaid eventually, with Avery nearly paying with his life twice for perceived wrongdoings (in both cases he actually behaves rightly). Moreover, as opposed to the certainty required by Luke’s line of work, he never seems comfortable with his own actions, nor does he ever enjoy his success, or even love his family as Luke does. The two men’s lives have powerful symmetries, but it is always in a deeply equivocal and provocative way that is never as simple as mere contrast.
The film becomes even more complex in the final act which portrays their sons. As I’ve implied, other reviews have found the conclusion weak, but I thought it triumphant. Both Emory Cohen (as Avery’s son AJ) and Dane DeHaan (as Luke’s son Jason), unlike any of their four parents, are superb. As lost as their fathers are, the sons are at an age, indeed born into a generation, with far fewer boundaries, and both boys are an accurate depiction of the despondent dissolution of youth today. One would be forgiven for assuming that this surfeit of freedom would improve their lives, given the fates of their heavily-fettered fathers, but in fact it serves to create a strange role reversal. AJ, son of a successful clean-cut father just as his father was before him, is harder (in his look, attitude, and drugs) than Jason, the bastard son of an impoverished home, and in a perverse way AJ becomes the criminal and Jason the righteous man. In addition to reversing their roles, this freedom allows them (unlike their fathers) to cross the class boundaries and interact with each other, though the nature of their friendship is still somewhat adversarial and class-inflected (You’re poor so you know where to get drugs) and the outcomes are of course negative. By this point in the film the emotional forces and resonances have become so intertwined and subtle that it would be futile to examine them further here. Suffice it to say that the final act is deeply moving and masterfully ties the threads of the film together.
In the feel of the film, Malick comes to mind as Peter Bradshaw points out, and in its probing of relationships and their ethics, Bergman. It is morally and emotionally complex. It is an inquiry into familial obligations, income inequality, and the possibility of morality in the face of immorality and deprivation. It is about when, and if, it is possible to do the right thing. Fathers and sons, violence and retribution, desperation and redemption; the list goes on. It is immaculately understated, a masterpiece of austerity―so much happens between the scenes and between the lines. In a moment that with its economy of dialogue and power to resurrect decades of repression is as powerful as Sling Blade, Luke’s friend lies to his son, “No, his bike’s gone. Police took it. I think they cut it up. They were angry with him, I know that. They were real mad with him.” Beautiful and haunting. Tortured but never melodramatic. People say the film overreaches, that it was “epic, perhaps to a fault” or “on the border between grandeur and grandiosity” but I dissent. It sets ambitious goals and meets them with assurance. I found it enthralling, never pretentious, and I await Cianfrance’s next work with great anticipation. ★★★★★
- At times I wonder whether Cianfrance is using Gosling’s vacuity in the way that Kubrick used Cruise’s in Eyes Wide Shut. [↩]