“The Place Beyond the Pines” has three interlocked stories to tell. They are very simple stories. If viewers don’t take to the film’s lush images, they may think the stories dreadfully simple.
Among the movie’s actors are a couple of our best, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. Without them “The Place Beyond the Pines” would be difficult to watch and probably difficult to make sense of. With them the movie is fortified. Whether or not that is enough is the question.
Gosling rules the first of the three stories, making ticketholders like his character, Motorcycle Luke. They have to be made to like him as Luke is a bank robber, a carney, and a chain smoker who speaks few words. Obviously the film does not intend him to be a model of deportment.
When a young woman leads him to discover that she has had his son, Jason, a year before, Luke decides to leave the sideshow act (riding a cycle with two others in a metal lattice-work globe), to stay in town and to try to do something for his kid. When money doesn’t come to him fast enough, he takes to holding up banks and getting away on a dirt bike.
The third time he tries this he for some reason can’t lose a pursuing squad car driven by a rookie cop named Avery (Cooper). They exchange shots. Luke is killed. Avery, a law school grad and the son of a former state supreme court judge, is hit.
Now we move to the second simple story. The shooting is ruled legal, though the viewer may wonder about that. Avery is ambitious. He is also dragged into acts of police corruption. When he tells his father that he is being threatened by a veteran officer (played by Ray Liotti) who leads a unit of cops stealing from criminal property, the judge suggests a way for his son to get clear of the problem and to set himself up for big political rewards.
The scheme is a simple one. It works and then fifteen years pass.
We meet Avery’s son A.J. He moves into his father’s home but continues to act like a rebellious sixteen-year-old, which is what he is. In his new high school he meets Jason. Remember Jason? Jason is also sixteen and knows how to get his hands on recreational drugs.
The two have a rocky friendship, one that is sometimes difficult to understand. Is Jason a social climber? He begins to learn things about his biological father. And one of them is that Luke was killed by A.J.’s father. Will this lead to tragic revenge on the eve of a big election?
The scene at the climax of story three is obvious homage to the Coen brothers’ great “Miller’s Crossing,” with John Turturo, on his knees out in the middle of a lush forest, begging his potential murderer to “Look into your heart.” But writer and director Derek Cianfrance (who made “Blue Valentine”) doesn’t have an ear for sharp dialog or much of a notion of the dynamics of narrative.
What he does have is the ability to run action-following steadicams and to give us an occasional memorable image—usually in or near the forest. And some viewers will find the structure of this movie to be interesting. Three stories follow one after the other and share a character or two.
But there really isn’t much to the stories. And they don’t seem to suggest that we should think more about the relationships between fathers and sons, say. So for me “The Place Beyond the Pines” was over-long and insufficiently meaningful. Too bad it contains one of Gosling’s most effective characters, and another of Cooper’s good ones.