The Place Beyond the Pines: Tense as Hell

By Tony LaScala · April 2, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie worthy of the denotation “film.” It invites you to peer into the lives of two very different families from completely different backgrounds, but always keeps you at arms length to prevent full immersion while it blurs the line between protagonist and antagonist.

Without giving away a twisting plot, I’ll just say that each act follows a different protagonist. In the first act we meet Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carnie motorcycle rider who discovers that he has a one-year old son with the “one who got away” Romina (Eva Mendes). In a desperate attempt to provide for his family, Luke is pressed into a lifestyle that comes naturally for his particular skill set: bank robbery. The second act follows young cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) and his reluctant yet rapid descent into the corruption of his police department. He too is trying to provide a life for his one-year old son, and stave off his wife Jennifer’s (Rose Byrne) constant worry about his job. In the final act, we are introduced to Luke’s now sixteen-year old son Jason (Dane DeHaan) and his friendship to Avery’s teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen). When Jason discovers that AJ is the son of Avery, their relationships spiral out of control and culminates in an ending that slowly tightens like a noose and does very little to relieve the pressure until you’re certain all hope is lost.

Each act presents a new dramatic action that stems from the tension of the previous. The engrossing dialogue is filled with the nuances of intention that arise from everyday conversation. The very decision to rob a bank by Luke is made so matter-of-factly that it can only be seen as logical despite its implications. It “feels right” for Luke to take the helm of the antagonist, while still providing buckets of subtle empathy that leave us rooting for him throughout his arc. Gosling portrays the “backed into a corner” Luke with a quiet explosiveness that’s sure to go off at any minute despite his friendly smile and best intentions.

Each choice by each character punctuates not only the story, but the characters as well. Bradley Cooper’s Avery is born into privilege and slowly descends into what he most hoped not to become, his father. At his core Avery is good, but circumstance leads him down a road that he cannot turn back from. The bulk of Cooper’s character can be found “between the lines” with his commitment to subtext that keeps the viewer guessing what his next move is.

I could continue for paragraphs gushing about each performance—Eva Mendes’s heart wrenching portrayal of a woman torn apart by two lovers, Rose Byrnes’s quiet mourning of the life she thought she would have had, Ray Liotta’s frightening turn as a corrupt cop, or Dane DeHaan’s portrayal of a youth reluctantly following in the footsteps of his father. If I had to pick one supporting performance that really stood out, it would be Ben Mendelsohn’s gripping depiction of Robin, the former bank robber turned upstate New York mechanic. Mendelsohn dips in and out of the film, but his accent alone oozes authenticity. As Robin watches his new friend Luke slip deeper and deeper into the world of bank robbery, we can watch the hamster spinning in the wheel of his simple mind as he struggles to search for a solution that could save them both.

The movie is long, and not as action packed as one would expect from a cops and robbers story. Screenwriter/Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) chooses instead to delve into the lives of the players themselves and does so masterfully slow. The end of the first act sets a kettle of dramatic tension to fire, and by the beginning of the third act the kettle is whistling in desperation for release. The tension finally boils over at the third act twist, and these last moments of the film leave viewers wondering if this story would have played out the same if the roles had been reversed.

Through careful plotting, excellent writing, meticulous acting, and all the other additions that make a film a masterpiece (the score alone is breathtaking); The Place Beyond the Pines leaves its viewers with the feeling of having seen something truly special. Don’t miss it.