Schenectady, NY: The Place Beyond the Pines ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2013)

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It’s official. Ryan Gosling is the McQueen of his generation. He has already aced the Taciturn Pro Driver (in the 2011 film Drive) and now with this weekend’s opening of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling can add the Taciturn Pro Biker to his Steve cred.

Judging from the chorus of dreamy sighs that spontaneously erupted all about the auditorium when Gosling first appeared onscreen, perhaps “taciturn, ripped and tattooed” would be a more apt description of Luke Glanton, a carny who makes his living charging around the ‘cage of death’ on his motorcycle. When we meet him, the carnival is nearing the end of a run in Schenectady. Killing time between performances, Luke runs into Romina (Eva Mendes) a woman he had a fling with the previous time the carnival blew through town.

Romina is reticent to re-connect with the flighty Luke, for two major reasons: 1) The new man in her life (Mahershala Ali), and 2) A 1-year old bundle of joy named Jason that resulted from their fling. She doesn’t tell Luke about item #2, but he soon finds out anyway.

Now, Luke is determined to “do the right thing” and provide for his son. He promptly quits the carnival gig, accepts a job offer from a shady auto repair shop owner (Ben Mendelsohn) and sets about ingratiating himself back into Romina’s life (choosing to ignore that whole live-in boyfriend thing).

However, minimum wage isn’t fitting in with Luke’s timetable. In lieu of a raise, his boss helpfully suggests that he try robbing a few banks for supplemental income (a sideline that the auto shop owner himself has dabbled in on occasion). With his special skill sets, Luke discovers that he has a knack; soon earning himself a nickname in the local media as “The Moto-Bandit”.

Luke’s reckless approach to his newfound criminal career puts him on a karmic path with that of another young father with an infant son, a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and it is at this point that the film takes some unexpected turns. Without giving much away, we’ll just say Luke’s story is prologue for what evolves into a more sprawling, multi-generational tale in the Rich Man, Poor Man vein.

It can also be viewed as a three-part character study, with Officer Cross’s story taking up the middle third, culminating with a flash-forward 15 years down the road involving a tenuous relationship that develops between the now high-school-aged sons of the two men (Dane DeHaan as the older Jason and Emory Cohen as AJ Cross). There’s also a noirish subplot with echoes of James Mangold’s Cop Land; in fact one of its stars, Ray Liotta, is essentially reprising  the same character he played there in Cianfrance’s film.

While it’s tempting to label Cianfrance’s screenplay (co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) as too sprawling at times (tossing everything into the mix…from classic film noir cycle tropes to Sirkian subtexts) he earns bonus points for coaxing uniformly excellent performances from the cast (particularly from Gosling, Cooper and the Brando-esque young Cohen), and for keeping true to its central themes: family legacies, the sins of the fathers, and the never-changing machinations of small town American politics.

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