From the moment we see Luke (Ryan Gosling), we like him. Is it because he makes a striking figure? He does, with his bleached blonde hair, muscles, and tattoos covering his body. He is all muscle and power, yet he's quiet and reserved, not eager for the spotlight. Is it because he's talented at driving a motorcycle? He is, and that's interesting, but he's no daredevil. The motorcycle he travels on isn't so much a vehicle to get around with as it is an extension of his body. He's not much of a talker. He communicates with the bike. He uses it to show who he is and how he's feeling. He rides the bike with two other stuntmen in a small metal cage. He slams it through the forest when he's frustrated. He's no bad boy. Not in the way that you think.
No, I think we like him and are affected by him because he's a walking wounded. We like him for the same reason we like his son 15 years later. A boy without his father is like a cat without his whiskers: blind and easily caught. An easy prey for pain. The bond and interdependence between sons and fathers is the major theme of this movie. Fathers needs their sons and sons need their fathers. Any break in that chain and you have a wound so deep, it's almost insurmountable.
Director Derek Cianfrance has written a modern Shakesperean tragedy in 3 acts.Act I, we meet Luke, Romina (Eva Mendes), the girl he left behind, and his newborn son, Jason. Luke doesn't want to be a deadbeat Dad like he had, so he decides to quit his job as a traveling stunt biker and settle down with his woman and son. The problem with this is very articulately worded by the least educated (but maybe most entertaining) person in in this movie, Robin: "You want to provide for your son? You have to do that using your skill set." Luke's skill set can be used for two things: putting on a good show and getting away quickly. Since he's quit show biz, he feels like his only option is to partner with Robin in robbing some banks. At heart, Luke is a saint. He has good motives, but he lacks the skills to carry them out. Since he had no father himself, he doesn't know what a good father does or looks like. He feels in order to be a good dad, he needs to have lots of dough and to be able to buy lots of stuff.
Luke's no criminal. These crimes come at a great personal cost to him. In order to do them, he has to beat himself on the head and talk to himself under his breath. He throws up after his first time. The adrenaline he had to accumulate must have been painful. But he knows adrenaline. This is the same stuff he uses for a stunt drive at the fair. Maybe he talks himself into believeing this is all one big stunt.
For at time, he gets what he wants. Romina seems to be coming around. He holds his son, and is able to buy him his first ice cream. He's happy. He's provided for his family. Romina can't stop crying she's so happy, or does she know it won't last? Eva Mendes brings out some interesting emotions in her baby mama role. But back to Luke, he makes multiple bad decisions that we know will end in a bad way.
Eventually, he does one robbery too many, without any support, and ends up getting caught. This is where Avery (Bradley Cooper) comes in, and where we start Act II. Avery's a well-educated cop. He went to law school and somehow ended up in a police officer doing beat work most of the time, until he gets a chance to be a hero. He meets our electric Luke in a high-speed car chase that ends with Avery in a hospital bed. What happened I won't divulge, but I will say that besides his physical wounds, Avery feels guilty, and rightly so. For he has taken something away from someone that he knows his priceless. In addition, he tells a lie during the investigation that made all the difference. The fact that he lies let us know up front that we aren't dealing with a black and white moral man. He is willing to do what it takes to climb up the ladder of success. And he has something that Luke does not: a father who puts his son's well-being high on the list of priorities. Although he has the advantage of a good father, his fault is that he can't be a good Dad. This is revealed in Act II. His main problem: he can't stand to look at his own son. And so the tragedy continues.
Act III, the son of Luke and the son of Avery meet 15 years later, and we see how their fathers have made marks on their lives. Both sons are wounded. Both have advantages, but maybe one actually has the ability to recover because he finally understands the truth about who his Father is, what he did, and where he came from. On the other hand, AJ is playing life with a tampered deck of cards, because he has a Father who has never admitted the truth, not even to himself. He can't be a good Father or a good husband, simply because he carries that one lie around him everywhere.
The sons, AJ and Jason, have no idea how they got where they are, but they can't seem to break way from their fates. In this way, they are characters in this tragedy, but I believe Jason finally makes his escape from fate at the end. There is healing in his discovery of the truth.
Altogether, this is a movie worth seeing and talking about. I have read many reviews that say the 3rd act is weak or they don't understand why AJ is such a troublemaker. To those reviewers, I say, you weren't paying attention. You missed a key component in this message. Avery can't be a good Dad and that has an indelible mark on his son.
The characters are all strong. Ryan Gosling's Luke steals the show, of course, but Bradley Cooper puts out a great performance which nuances that show in his face. Eva Mendes pull out a complex performance as the baby mama. Her tears when she's in the arms of Luke and later in the ice cream scene are true to form, at least in my own experience. The supporting cast is all good. A special shout out should go to Dane DeHaan, who plays the teenage Jason. He has been in several films now. In 2012, I've seen him in Chronicle, where he plays another teen in a lot of pain, and in Lawless, where he plays Cricket, the crippled friend of the lead character. In both roles, he made a mark, and although it's too soon to tell, I think we will see a lot more of him.
There is also a strong sense of place in this movie. I don't mean that it's important that this takes place in Schenechtady, NY. But the landmarks of this town. There are the houses, the homes that the characters reside in, old and rundown. The way the camera spends a lot of time looking through doors and windows. Marking which characters belong and which do not. The way the ice cream shop is in the background in Act I and then again in ACT III, ripping our heart out when we remember who was there in ACT I. The way the roads are traveled on by a father who is running away from something and then a son who is running toward something. The way the forests of pines are returned to over and over again for different purposes.
The director does so many things with the camera. It's used differently in all three acts of the movie, which give each one a unique feel. I believe this is a highlight movie of 2013. I know it sounds trite, but these characters do break your heart. You want to give them all hugs and pay for therapy. The Place Beyond the Pines is a great movie. It's a shame that more won't probably see it and instead opt to pay for less quality films, who spend tons of cash on special effects with far less impact.
Read my review of another Derek Cianfrance movie, Blue Valentine, here.