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Ryan Gosling as stunt riding heart throb 'Handsome Luke'

Ryan Gosling as stunt riding heart throb ‘Handsome Luke’

Stretching over a period of fifteen years, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines tells the intertwining tales of travelling carnival stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling), law student turned policeman Avery (Bradley Cooper), and the legacy they leave to their teenage sons.

Set mainly at a slow and steady pace, with minimal action, pared downed dialogue and most of the emotion being portrayed solely through body language and gestures, the film is very much character driven. Much like his last feature Blue Valentine, Cianfrance places the focus entirely on relationships. Where Blue Valentine explored the intricacies of love, marriage, and hateful breakdown, The Place Beyond the Pines instead deconstructs male relationships; laying fatherhood, friendship and loyalty out on a science lab table top for a full on guts-out prod about.

Split into three sections, the focus initially falls on Luke. Moving through Schenectady with his motorcycling act, he discovers a fling the previous summer with local girl Romina (Eva Mendez) has led to him becoming a father. Luke decides to put his riding days behind him in order to become a permanent feature in his newfound child’s life. Struggling for money in the face of tensions with both Romina and her new lover, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke steps his fledgling friendship with new landlord Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) up a level to target banks ripe for robbing.

With Luke’s expert bike skills and Robin’s previous criminal form, a successful heist team is born, and it isn’t long before we see the two of them celebrating with a spot of beer and Bruce Springsteen. Having had no relationship with his own father, Robin fits the bill of father figure for Luke. Older, wiser, it’s as though he recognises a younger self. Luke may be pulling in the money, however the barriers between he and his son remain. Desperately wanting to do the right thing, Luke’s dream of the perfect family unit is shattered by his underlying violent tendencies and the horrible realisation that even when made with the best of intentions, bad decisions can often lead to a fall.

Ryan Gosling with Eva Mendez as Romina, mother of his child

Ryan Gosling with Eva Mendez as Romina, the mother of his child

Gosling’s performance is understatedly stunning – his particular trademark brand of heart breaking eye acting working to full effect in the role of errant father trying to make amends.

Bradley Cooper as Avery Cross

Bradley Cooper as Avery Cross

With the story falling on the shoulders of reluctantly heroic cop, Avery Cross, we are quickly introduced to a man dealing with the consequences of his own bad decision. Whether or not his intentions lie in the right place is initially hard to judge. We see a young man coming to terms with a work-related incident that leaves him hospitalized. Defying his own father’s calls for him to return to his law background, Avery becomes driven to succeed in a police force riddled with corruption, while also entangling himself in the life of Luke’s nearest and dearest, and becoming increasingly distanced from both his wife and baby son.

Sacrificing friendship for the greater good – to clear a heavy conscience or purely to further his career goals? – Avery’s motives seem unclear. Cooper performs well in the role of the young Avery, troubled by an error of judgement, but the real time for him to shine will be once he leaves the shell suits of the past behind and Cianfrance moves the story on by fifteen years.

Emory Cohen as AJ and Dane DeHaan as Jason

Emory Cohen as AJ and Dane DeHaan as Jason

The third and final segment centres on the children of Luke and Avery, and the repercussions of their father’s past doings on their lives. Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) knows nothing of his biological father, having had a stable upbringing with Romina and Kofi, while Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) appears to have grown up distanced from his father by career and divorce. The bonds of friendship and family are tested, as secrets from the past return – pushing Jason to his limits, and haunting Avery to breaking point. DeHaan looks old before his time throughout, displaying great ability for both subtlety and rage.

Cooper is a revelation towards the very end, showing how much talent lies beneath the tendency to stray toward lighter roles. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of this earlier, as with the young Avery there could be much more exploration of the relationship with his father, and there are stilted talks with his psychiatrist that could be expanded upon. We only get to see the full effects of the ghosts which plague him very late in the day, but then a slow build up seems par for the course with Cianfrance.

So much of the story hinges on fatherhood, and sacrifices made for the ones we love, but some of the aspects are only touched upon briefly. Where it succeeds there are the jokes between Jason and ‘real’ father Kofi, Luke’s sense of duty to Romina and their child, the eventually destructive sense of care shown to Luke by Robin, and Robin’s short but very sweet interactions with Jason. Where it fails, I feel a little cheated by the shallow depths of Avery’s relationships with both his father and son, and the fleeting glance of friendships that test his loyalties.

But overall – as with Blue Valentine – Cianfrance’s best and most believable relationships are the ones he shows you. Relationships, partnerships and friendships, that are built up bit by bit through actions and interactions. The old writing axiom of “Show, don’t tell” is always at work. As mentioned before, the build up is slow, and very considered. For some this means the running time may be a problem, but for those willing to sit back and let the story gradually unfold, there are many rewards.

The performances are of the highest standard, even smaller roles for Ray Liotta and Bruce Greenwood being approached with as much care as those of the main cast. Ben Mendelsohn is such a strong presence in his role as Robin and stripped of all her usual glamour, Eva Mendez is beautifully sad as Romina. Mike Patton’s sweeping soundtrack works in harmony with the sublime cinematography of Sean Bobbit – the final scene in particular making for a visually stunning viewing experience.

Putting fatherhood issues aside, The Place Beyond the Pines is full of ill-judged decisions made in haste. But in life, everyone makes mistakes. It’s what we do over time to rectify them that truly counts.

Epic in scope and length, Derek Cianfrance has taken on an ambitious project which doesn’t always work, but when it does, it hits where it hurts.

God damn, I need a pair of those trews in my life...

God damn, I need a pair of those trews in my life…

On a lighter note, the highlight for me was always going to be Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn boogying with a dog to Dancin’ in the Dark though, wasn’t it? I mean, come on…