In his debut feature-length film, Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance presented an extremely intimate portrait of a decaying relationship in unflinching detail. Cianfrance has crafted a more ambitious, expectation-defying epic about the bond between a father and his son. In what seems like an intimate film, Mike Patton’s beautiful score and Sean Bobbitt’s mix of claustrophobic and vast shots creates a feeling of something grand happening, something that spans generations, but something really personal and intimate. In his 1988 review of Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty—a film about a family on the lam whose teenaged son must break away and choose his own path—Roger Ebert writes, “But it’s a funny thing about the past. The more you run from it, the more it’s in your thoughts.” Lumet characterizes that sentiment further in his bookMaking Movies, when he lays out the film’s key concern: “Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents?” It’s a timeless tale, one that is being revisited in The Place Beyond the Pines.
It is a triptych covering the relationship between two families, one blue collar, the other middle class, whose paths cross over two generations in Schenectady, an upstate New York town near the state capital of Albany. As he did in Blue Valentine, the filmmaker directs his camera toward places that tell us something about America’s decayed or tawdry physical surfaces and the American Dream that has lost it’s shine. Schenectady is a former manufacturing center, the home base of General Electric, near the state capital of Albany. The city has lost most of its manufacturing jobs and almost a third of its population since 1950. It’s the hometown of Henry James’s wealthy heiress Daisy Miller, the setting of several TV sitcoms as well as the Charlie Kaufman movie Synecdoche, New York, and it has the position in American culture of being traditional and archetypal, an expression of the national experience. The film’s title refers to the Mohawk Indian source of the city’s name. Not only do several important scenes take place in the woods, there is the added implication of things pushed into dark psychic places. The cinematography y cinematography by Steve McQueen’s frequent collaborator Sean Bobbitt who has worked on all his films with long tracking shots of roads and the forest are quite striking.
From the opening tracking shot, as Sean Bobbitt’s camera follows Gosling, playing a motorcycle stunt rider named Luke, out of his trailer and across a crowded fairground in upstate New York. A laconic, post-James Dean dreamboat with tattoos and a blond dye job, he leads a group of stunt drivers that motorcycle daredevil style in an enclosed circular metal cage at top speed, as they defy death by narrowly keeping from crashing into each other. His plethora of tattoos on nearly every part of body is supposed to indicate a mysterious past of pain .
One night he is reunited with a woman, Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he had a brief fling the last time he was in town. Through his subtly body movements and advances one can see Luke thinking that Romina has sought him out to recreate their last encounter, but when Romina rebuffs his subtle advances, he appears confused. Her rejection intrigues him enough to return to her home the following day and discover that he has a son named Jason. In spite of Romina’s initial protests, Luke insists on being a part of his son’s life. He immediately quits his job and takes a low-paying job for a local mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who takes an immediate liking to Luke after the two meet in the woods, each riding their motorcycles. Robin also offers him a home, a shabby trailer on his property. It turns out Robin used to rob banks to make ends meet and offers to partner up with Luke, who is desperate to prove himself worthy to Romina by providing financially for his son. The two have a successful run, but after Luke is arrested for assault, Robin tells Luke he thinks they should stop. Luke becomes more determined than ever. He’s able to temporarily reduce any feelings of inadequacy when he performs a successful heist, all of which have depended on his stellar skill at maneuvering a motorcycle. Being a bank robber is where Luke derives his sense of self-worth. But, he’s reckless, and feeling Romina and his son slipping from his tenuous grasp, he tries a robbery on his own. Luke is pursued and eventually gunned down by a rookie police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).
The script, co-written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is less interested in drolleries like that than in structure and setting. The drab milieu of Schenectady, NY, comes through vividly, in scenes of hardscrabble working lives – diners, fairgrounds, backwoods garages – later in the middle-class territory of suburban homes with swimming-pools. The first time these two categories overlap it’s marked by violent tragedy. Gosling’s performance is key, lending the film its headlong, fatalistic charge and invoking memories of his stylish wheelman in Drive.His Luke turns out be a more volatile character than we thought, his suspect temperament betraying him into sloppy technique. When he goes solo on a bank job he forgets his face disguise – not a good idea when you’ve got a dagger tattoo below your eye – and his getaway has the panicked momentum of a fox pursued by hounds.
It’s a breathless set-piece we’re still recovering from when the film jumps tracks to focus on a police officer named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Injured in the line of duty, and the man responsible for apprehending a quasi-famous bank robber, Avery is a local hero. It turns out Cross isn’t just some beat cop. He’s a complementary figure: a college-educated uniformed cop and son of a well respected ex-judge. He too has a small son. Suddenly he becomes a police hero in somewhat dubious circumstances. Despite his father’s urgings to take advantage of his pedigree coupled with his highly lauded accomplishment, Avery takes a desk job working the evidence room. He’s haunted by his encounter with Luke Glanton and by something he finds among the criminal’s belongings, a picture of Luke, Romina and Jason. Avery is married with an infant son the same age as Jason, but he demonstrates a lack of paternal instinct when it comes to his own child. Avery and his father don’t have an intimate, familial relationship. The elder Cross is more of a professional mentor. Avery’s disillusionment regarding police work reaches an apex when he discovers a ring of crooked cops in his precinct.
Riddled with guilt, he’s drawn into a web of corruption and professional intrigue that wraps itself around the local criminal justice system. The crooked colleagues (one played by the menacing Ray Liotta, American cinema’s prime exponent of bent coppers) bring his life into collision with those of the working-class Romina and Jason on the other side of the tracks. Driven by a confused combination of ambition, honesty and guilt, Avery decides to shop the conspirators who seek to draw him into the shady underworld where law enforcers and outlaws mingle. This is Sidney Lumet’s stamping ground (though less intense), and the movie immediately brings to mind Lumet’s Serpico and Prince of the City. It’s an ironic tale that closely parallels the first one about the biker in its moral ambiguity. Avery’s awkwardness as a police officer; his efforts to try and work his way up the ranks on his own but failing, the futility of fighting his pre-determined path lead him to change his life’s trajectory.
The film leaps ahead 15 years, and Avery is running for attorney general. His father has died, and he and his wife are divorced. It soon becomes evident that he hasn’t had much of a hand in raising his son AJ (Emory Cohen) who is already a thug and petty criminal. Avery’s ex-wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne), asks Avery to let AJ come and live with him. She emphasizes how much their son needs a male influence. This is where the movie begins to falter. It’s obvious that AJ is going to encounter Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHann), and like their fathers’, their relationship is going to end badly. It’s through Jason’s association with AJ that Ryan sets out to learn the truth about his biological father. Romina honored Luke’s request that she not tell their son about him. Raised by Romina’s long-time love Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Jason still feels a palpable kinship to Luke, a man he never knew.
The film practically pays homage to dysfunctional family dynamics. Avery becomes aware of Jason’s presence in his life and demands his son stay away from him. It isn’t clear what Avery is more fearful of, his son’s influence on Jason or vice versa. He does make reparations to Jason in his own way, something he tried to do 15 years earlier, but was then rebuked by Romina. Avery is ambivalent about his own son and his role as a parent. Romina briefly reignites a physical relationship with Luke, even letting him spend the day with her and their son, only to banish him soon after. Luke is a dangerous, violent loner, but holds and comforts his baby son with an instinctual tenderness. AJ will always benefit from his father’s connections but never amount to more than a prop in a photo op. Luke’s presence is felt throughout the entire film. He haunts Romina, Avery, Robin and eventually Jason. Pure biological connection fuels the anger that leads Jason to his eventual confrontation with Avery. This meeting is inevitable, and it proves cathartic for Avery and provides Jason with a sense of purpose and some clarity.
Cianfrance wants to say something about “what we’re born with and what we pass on” (the film’s production notes), about the heavy psychological and social burden individuals may inherit and how they can perhaps break free from it. He discusses his films’ recurrent theme of family dynamics, saying that “families are filled with secrets and intricacies, and so is cinema.” He is interested in the disconnect between the outwardly happy way that families present themselves and their internal conflicts, saying that, from a young age, he was interested in taking photographs of people fighting. “I don’t relate to perfection,” he says. One always assume in such cases that the filmmaker—whether fully conscious of this or not—has at least one eye on the broader state of American life and is wondering how the levels of violence and abuse, personal and otherwise, might be overcome. And generally these days, the artist concludes, as he does here, that “It’s about the choices we make and how those choices echo throughout generations” (production notes again).
In Westerns there’s a trope of “the ranch across the border,” the place where our hero and his girl can escape from the rules and violence of regular American life, the paradise on the other side of that sunset. Schenectady, “the place beyond the pines,” may have been that haven once too, but Cianfrance’s film lays out how that dream has curdled, and how the escape must happen in another way– with ambition, or paternal duty, or a gun, those powerful American symbols all. The place beyond the pines isn’t what it was when the Mohawks named it– but there’s got to be another one, just over that horizon, just out of sight.