Legacy, in its broadest sense, is what we leave behind. It’s what we pass on to our children and so forth. The choices we make, the sins we commit, or perhaps the conflicts we leave unresolved; the things we do in our lifetime can echo across generations. The Place Beyond The Pines takes the notion of legacy and reveals its devastating impact on the lives that follow one another down a disastrous road. Using a three-part structure, writer and director Derek Cianfrance tells the story of two separate fathers, and how a small coincidence has huge repercussions for their respective sons. Think twice before seeing this film. This is not for the hopeful. Pines will take you to a place filled with guilt, tragedy, and no easy answers. It will leave you broken.
The first act of the film focuses on Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman who wanders through life on his own. He’s a traveler, drifting from town to town to provide audiences with a passing thrill. But things change when he finds out that Romina, a fling from the previous year, had given birth to his son in his absence. For the first time, Luke finds himself wanting to stay, to provide for his child and become part of a family. Unfortunately, Romina already has a man to take care of them, which leaves Luke on the outside looking in. This happens quite literally in two gut-wrenching scenes, one where Luke walks in during his son’s baptism and, knowing he doesn’t belong, finds a place amongst a row of empty pews, praying for a way in. The other happens briefly as Luke makes an impromptu stop at Romina’s house and watches from afar while another man cradles his son. Despite all this, Luke’s determination never falters, even when his attempts to insert himself in his son’s life become increasingly desperate. This trait, while admirable, is also the character’s flaw, because it is out of this desperation that leads him down a path of self-destruction.
This role must have required some courage. Known for his dashing good looks, Ryan Gosling strips away the charm (and occasionally his shirt) to inhabit a character with an incredibly heavy heart. Through a muted yet surprisingly magnetic performance, Gosling displays the pain of his character with a quiet intensity, allowing him to erupt out of uncontrollable rage, or revert to a personal cage of despair. In just the first twenty minutes, Luke is already driven to a point where he is morally compromised. He cannot be there for his son nor support him financially, so he turns to bank-robbing as a means of providing for him in the long run. The sentiment is noble at first, but it begins to blur as it goes on because he’s only indulging in the thrill to compensate for the emptiness inside. Yes, all of this arises out of Luke’s broken sense of direction. But it also ends up removing him further away from his son’s life. This, in turn, steers him into the path of Avery Cross, a local cop who also happens to be a father. And from here, the film takes a hard left turn and immerses us into Avery’s story.
I cannot delve any further into the plot because to do so would spoil the story and ruin the emotional impact for first-time viewers. This impact is crucial because it paves the way for some startling revelations in the final act of the film. This second act, however, is still compelling on its own. Featuring a subdued performance from Bradley Cooper, Avery’s tale centers on the injustices within the police force. Though we have a different protagonist this time around, Avery’s arc is still relevant with the film’s overarching theme of crime and corruption. Following an injury, Avery is reassigned to the evidence locker room. This leaves him in a tight spot between him and his colleagues, who are, in fact, dirty cops. He’s then caught up in a crooked scheme to plant and manipulate evidence, thereby undermining the very oath he swore as a cop. Bradley Cooper shows surprising restraint in the role. There’s nothing flashy about him here, and it works towards the film’s advantage. He’s playing someone who, like Luke, is experiencing a moral dilemma. Only difference is that he must choose between his fellow officers or his own integrity. Of course, his character’s nobility only goes so far, because in the end he uses the scandal to buy his way into the district attorney’s office. On the surface, he’s the shining example of a hero, but underneath he’s rotting away because he’s struggling with the weight of a sin, one that he’s so desperately trying to run from. What that sin is, I can’t say, but further down the road it goes on to affect both Luke’s child and his own.
The stories of both Luke and Avery could have been separate crime dramas on their own. But director Derek Cianfrance has something bigger in mind: legacy. Cianfrance illustrates the lives of two fathers and takes us in two very different directions, but the third act of the film brings it all home. Here we have Jason and AJ, the sons of Luke and Avery, respectively. By chance, they stumble into each other’s lives in the middle of a crowded high school setting, and afterwards the two strike up a friendship that reawakens old sins. Though slightly less compelling than the first two-thirds of the film, Cianfrance uses this last third to show how the sins of the father are passed on to each son. This leaves both Jason and AJ with no other choice but to become, in some way, like their fathers. Their lives are intertwined by fate and therefore, they cannot escape their destiny no matter how hard they try. The final shot of the film becomes all the more haunting as Jason runs off into the world on a newly-purchased motorcycle, believing that he can escape when really he’s becoming just like his father – a traveler.
Cianfrance has crafted something that’s practically unheard of : the epic drama. The story itself is very reminiscent of Shakespeare in the sense that it allows these tragic events to unfold within a broken setting and then forces us to witness the heartbreaking aftermath. What makes this film so powerful is that it never tries to pick apart the circumstances or the coincidences between characters, rather it’s more about the consequences that follow. And it is brutal. This is a truly ambitious film with a broad-ranging scope that far exceeds the frame of the camera. This is something that, much like the sins between fathers and sons, will go on to resonate for generations to come. I’m proud to say that this may be one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think I’d be able to see it twice.