Ryan Gosling strides into The Place Beyond The Pines like a mythical being straight out of 50s Hollywood: with the melancholic cool of James Dean, he rides his rasping motorcycle in a ball of death for a travelling carnival, while Eva Mendes swoons over his pumped-up physique and patchwork of tattoos. But director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) does more than riff on Gosling’s post-Drive ascension to heart-throb status; instead, his film gets under the skin of cinema’s romantic view of the rugged outlaw archetype, revealing a more depressing underlying truth about wealth and status.
In an attempt to provide for his ex-lover Romina (Mendes) and their infant son, motorcycle rider Luke (Gosling) quits his carnival act and embarks on a bank robbing spree across Schenectady, New York. With the help of his partner in crime Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), he uses his riding skills to outmanoeuvre the cops. But in spite of his new-found wealth, Luke finds himself at odds with Romina and society as a whole.
On the other side of the city, we meet 29-year-old cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose privileged upbringing and law school education have done little to aid his ambition of becoming a district attorney. But when he becomes an unwitting accomplice in the theft of a stack of cash from a witness, he spots an opportunity to blackmail his way to the position he’s after – even if it does mean incurring the wrath of lizard-faced fellow cop Deluca (Ray Liotta, in a role that recalls his sinister turn in Unlawful Entry).
The continually unfolding drama also introduces troubled teen Jason (Dane DeHaan) who finds himself on the wrong side of the law when he makes friends with a new kid at school, AJ (Emory Cohen). Each set of characters connects and crosses paths in unexpected ways, as Cianfrance’s film spans the course of 15 years.
Although the lack of a single story arc leaves the film feeling fragmented and meandering at times, it’s an audacious idea, and pushes the boundaries of its crime drama framework into unexpected new territory. Some of the narrative kinks are also smoothed over by uniformly excellent performances from its superb cast. Mendelsohn – who made an unforgettable impression as the cruel criminal Pope in Animal Kingdom – is equally striking here, albeit in a smaller, more low-key role. Bruce Greenwood shares a brief yet electric scene with Cooper, whose introspective, muted turn is markedly different from Gosling’s taut animal magnetism.
The Place Beyond The Pines is a bleak, stark film, which refuses to glamourise its characters or their actions. Like Animal Kingdom, it’s a study of criminality as a symptom of poverty rather than a cool lifestyle choice; Mendelsohn’s line, “Good luck supporting your son on minimum wage” may be the most important in the entire film. Far from suggesting anything as prosaic as ‘crime doesn’t pay’, Cianfrance’s message is more complicated and downbeat.
Although all the film’s characters make rash decisions and stupid mistakes, it’s the ones in poverty that ultimately suffer for them, while those on the other side of the economic fence continue to prosper. Compare Dane DeHaan’s impoverished yet gentle Jason with Emory Cohen’s corn-fed, street-talking young buck AJ; it’s perhaps no coincidence that AJ’s swagger and drawling voice recalls Marlon Brando’s performance in The Wild One. With the safety net of his DA father behind him, AJ can afford to play the role of a tough rebel; those on the other side of the economic divide are, inevitably, less fortunate. Where one falters, the other stands tall.
If this makes The Place Beyond The Pines sound like a difficult, depressing film, that’s because it is. Flashes of humour aside – the image of Ryan Gosling dancing with a dog to Bruce Springsteen is forever etched on our minds – its sense of desolation is otherwise unremitting, underlined by Sean Bobbitt’s cold yet beautiful cinematography and Mike Patton’s lonely score.
The Place Beyond The Pines’ relevance in the current climate is undeniable. Just as the Vietnam war had an indelible impact on an entire generation, so the ongoing financial crisis has inarguably had its own similarly traumatic impact, with the loss of countless jobs and houses, and the division between the rich and poor laid bare for all to see.
The recession isn’t directly discussed in The Place Beyond The Pines, but its effects, its resentments and its scars are all over its characters and incidents. And just as that pain and sense of outrage was recorded eloquently in Michael Cimino’s similarly lengthy yet vital drama, The Deer Hunter, so Cianfrance’s film deals with the ripple effects of wealth and poverty, and how birth and status determine how we’re treated and what we do.
The Place Beyond The Pines is out in UK cinemas on the 12th April.
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