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The mythic-sounding title The Place Beyond the Pines is in fact the Mohawk name for a town often synonymous with the mundane: Schenectady, New York. Among verdant rolling hills and modest clapboard houses writer-director Derek Cianfrance unspools a large, deadly serious story about fathers and sons and generations shaped by one act of violence, like a working-class Godfather in which no one is powerful or clever enough to actually become a Don. The movie is rough but gorgeous, overwrought but also achingly sincere, and so well-acted by its massive ensemble that its three stories, each of them a bit thin on their own, combine with remarkable power.
We begin with Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver who looks like a walking bad decision-- peroxided hair, filthy t-shirt, a face tattoo and plenty of others on the rest of his body. In lightly sketched details we see that he's arrived back in town with a traveling circus and reunited with Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress who has given birth to their son without telling Luke. Already adrift, Luke finds himself living with a mechanic and petty thief (Ben Mendelsohn) who talks him into executing a string of bank robberies, all so he can hand Romina an envelope of money to help raise the kid.
Eventually, inevitably, Luke crosses paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a nearly-30-year-old rookie cop who joined the force after law school despite his tony upbringing. As the film switches focus to Avery we see his struggle to be a good cop in a force wracked by corruption (led by the reliably slimy Ray Liotta), not to mention demands from his wife (Rose Byrne) and father (Harris Yulin) that he be more ambitious. Just when it seems Avery's story will make up the second half of the film it switches to a third act, this one set 16 years later and following Luke's son Jason (Dane DeHaan) as well as Avery's, AJ (Emory Cohen)-- neither of whom have grown up the way you would expect given what we know about their fathers.
The fulcrum of Place Beyond the Pines is a single, relatively minor act of violence, the kind of thing mentioned in passing on local news and quickly moved past in most films. Cianfrance, who so precisely probed heartbreak in Blue Valentine, takes a similarly unflinching approach to the violence here, watching its waves ripple out and its effects linger as long as they would in real life: forever. Perhaps feeling pressure to escalate things, he goes a bit too far with it in the third act, pushing the story toward unrealistic synchronicity with the past. But the Shakespearean dimensions of the story-- sons avenging fathers, fathers damaging sons, man grappling with his own demons-- allow for the grandiose high stakes, and Cianfrance's tenderness toward his characters keeps the heavy story just on the side of bearable. Small actions, like Luke's reaction to seeing his newborn son, or Avery's fumbling attempts to connect with a teenage AJ, make these people real, not pawns in a cosmic tragedy. Even more so though than in Blue Valentine, Cianfrance creates a layered and moving portrait of working-class life, of people trying-- in many of the wrong ways-- to improve lives for themselves and the generations to come.
Gosling, whose detached stillness made robbery so exquisitely cool in Drive, brings more jumpiness and genuine fear to Luke, and scenes between him and the eternally underrated Mendes crackle with the tension of a real romance that might have been. Freshly Oscar-nominated Cooper no longer has as much to prove, but you wouldn't know it watching his Avery, a constant striver who never stops living in fear that it will all collapse around him. And though by the time his story emerges there's not quite enough time to make all of the details work, DeHaan-- a quickly rising star who's been a standout in everything he's ever done-- makes a major impact, playing a thoughtful and intelligent teen who's still a little too fragile for what this rough world will throw at him.
In Westerns there's a trope of "the ranch across the border," the place where our hero and his gal 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.