The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Three life stories in Schenectady, NY

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 “The Place Beyond the Pines” attempts to present us three life stories together in its intimate and wide approach. While not all of its elements work well and its last act is relatively unsatisfying, it is an engaging drama about the flawed characters struggling to do right things but causing more unhappiness in and beyond their lives. They wish to be happy, and they also care about others around themselves, but their actions only resonate into more regret and desolation as a result – and the consequences return in a full circle like karma.

The first story is about Luke Glanton(Ryan Gosling), who has worked as a skillful stunt motorcyclist of traveling troupe at state fairs for years. He is not a settler type, and he has probably never thought about having a family, but he begins to think seriously about that possibility when he happens to meet his ex-girlfriend Romina(Eva Mendes) again in Schenectady, New York(The title of the movie is derived from the English translation of the name of the city, a Mohawk word for “place beyond the pine plains”). He comes to know that she was pregnant when he left her for another state fair, so he decides to do something for his young infant son as his father.

While his intention is sincere, he is not so wise in his clumsy attempt. He promptly quits his motorcycle stunt job, but he has no particular plan right now for how he can help Romina and his son or how he can support himself. Compared to Romania’s current boyfriend Kofi(Mahershala Ali), he has virtually nothing to give to them. Romina finds herself drawn to Luke as before, but we can sense that this practical woman will eventually do what is best for her and her son even if there is a chance to live with Luke.

theplacebeyondthepines04While trying to find a way to get money for Romina and his son, Luke gets involved with Robin(Ben Mendelsohn), a shabby local auto mechanic who provides him a place to stay and proposes a criminal partnership to him. Luke’s motorcycling skill is a crucial factor in their bank robbery plan, and the director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance, who made a terrific debut with his melancholic romance film “Blue Valentine”(2010), shows us that he is good at making competent action sequences. During one long sequence, his handheld camera mostly stays on one vehicle and only looks at Luke on his motorcycle from the distance, but its extended shot fills this sequence with realistic urgency even without busy editing, and then the movie eventually arrives at a fateful moment which will cast a shadow on the lives of most of its main characters.

The movie also focuses on Officer Avery Cross(Bradley Cooper), a young cop who finally gets an opportunity to move up his career through one unfortunate shootout incident. While feeling guilty about what he done, he later faces another problem which will be hazardous to not only his career but also his life, and he becomes conflicted about what he should do because not many people can be trusted at his workplace.

While this part is progressed in a rather predictable direction with Ray Liotta’s your average menacing corrupt cop as one of its supporting character, Bradley Cooper’s performance is compelling enough to hold our attention as a policeman who struggles to pull himself out of one personal crisis and then finds himself in a bigger professional crisis. Cooper, who previously showed us his unexpected side through his stellar Oscar-nominated turn in “Silver Lining Playbook”(2012), confirms here again that he is too good to be wasted in disposable films like “The Hangover Part III”(2013), and his complex performance works as a good counterpart to Ryan Gosling’s equally effective performance. When he makes a right decision at one point, Avery is not just propelled by his professional conscience – he is also driven by his personal ambition to live up to his famous father’s reputation, and that is why he is more than willing to risk everything in his life while making sure that he will get exactly what he wants.

theplacebeyondthepines02The other two main characters in the movie are two high school boys who have never met each other before. AJ(Emory Cohen) wants to live with his politician father who is currently busy with his campaign for the state attorney general election, and he gets his wish after his mother persuades his dad, but he is no help to his dad’s campaign or his life. This troublesome kid gets arrested on the street not long after he moves to his father’s house, and that puts more distance between father and son.

At the local high school he is transferred to, he gets involved with a boy named Jason(Dane DeHaan), who also has a serious daddy issue. Although his mother and his stepfather is generous to him in spite of his constant troubles with drugs, he is still an unhappy and sullen teenager wishing to know more about his biological father he vaguely knows. On one day, he gets his wish, and there is some surprise for him.

Their story is relatively less engaging and feels more dragged compared to the other two stories mainly due to underdeveloped characterization, flawed storytelling and problematic acting(I hope it is not the young actors’ fault), but the movie has good things in its ambitious story arc, and I appreciated its small character moments supported by the good performances Cianfrance drew from his cast members. The movie feels bleak and desperate as observing the characters’ frustration and desperation in their daily life, but it also has several tiny warm moments such as when Luke and Romina have a little private time together in his trailer or when Jason’s stepfather, a decent and sensible man, has a personal talk alone with his stepson.

While watching their stories unfolded in Schenectady, I was somehow reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”(2008), which also has several scenes in Schenectady. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is less successful than that profound masterpiece in telling how life can be messy and miserable despite good intentions through its sad story, but it is a good drama on the whole illuminating how much we can affect ourselves and others through our choices and subsequent actions. Now I am reminded of one memorable line from “Synecdoche, New York”: “There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

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