"The bike's part of the family."
Harper Lee famously wrote, "You can choose your friends, but you sho' can't choose your family, an' they're still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge 'em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don't." In THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a nomadic shadow, a folk hero of the eccentric. His absurd clothes and chaotic tattoos tell the story of his life and his process. His introduction is a close-up of a toned torso; the camera follows closely behind as he makes his way towards his motorcycle and a death-defying stunt. The anonymous crowd cheers. This place and these people are his kin.
He makes his money by spinning around metallic spheres, yet, his life is truly thrown upside-down by Romina (Eva Mendes) who reveals to Luke that he has unknowingly fathered a child with her. This news prompts a change in his life, but his reaction seems impractical. This is a man who has used his mystique to bed a variety of women in countless towns. Luke slowly indoctrines himself in Romina and his son, Jason's life by purchasing gifts and attending his baptism in a way to make up for lost time. He bombards them with attention, but this newfound need for responsibility comes across as unfounded.
Unable to provide consistently, Luke befriends Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a local mechanic and ex-con. Robin jokes that with Luke's skill set he should be robbing banks. It's not a very funny joke. Luke eventually relents and a local branch goes down almost too smoothly. It's not long before greed replaces ambition, and he's on the prowl for multiple targets in one day. Luke seemingly commits a lifetime of bad decision in a few short hours. This leads to a confrontation with officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young policeman whose face and record are as clean as his freshly pressed uniform.
PINES is told in three narratives. The first is Luke's; the second, Avery's. The latter butts heads with Deluca (Ray Liotta*) a fellow cop at his precinct. Deluca's motives are soiled with indiscretions and bullying behavior. He and Cross are polar opposites, like the sides of Two-Face's silver dollar. It is through a series of actions where Avery attempts to climb the corporate ladder, going to places he's not entirely comfortable.
*Liotta does't have the look of an maniacal man. He is the look. It's his steely gaze, his plastered face, and the pitch perfect voice that teeters between whiny and serene. Liotta has also written the book on how to play the dirty cop, including the foreword and the afterword. At his book release, he would sign it, "Fuck you -- Ray Liotta," then punch you in the face when you went to shake his hand.
Although the transition between Luke and Avery's story is absolutely flawless, it's not the case as the story pushes even further ahead. Leaping large distances in time can be a tricky thing. While PINE's account is undoubtedly strong, it loses significant momentum when the words, "Fifteen-years later" are sprawled across the screen, and we're now following the teenaged lives of Luke and Avery's sons, Jason and AJ (Dane DeHaan, who is exceptional; and Emory Cohen, who is exceptionally irritating). It eventually gets to its desired destination, but for some precious time, one wonders why we left such a fruitful period to begin with.
First and foremost, this is a story of fathers and sons, and if nothing else, a terrific character study on the ramifications of connections (or lack thereof). How some choices made intimately affect the existence of another. Thankfully, PINES is much more than that. Director Derek Cianfrance opened eyes with 2010's BLUE VALENTINE, a painfully absorbing film dealing with the intricacies of commitment. That too starred Gosling; both roles demanding a monumental amount of immaturity to succeed.
The cast across the board is fierce. Mendes is one notable who spans the entire chronicle; hers and Gosling's chemistry is what anchors the film. She is in many ways helpless. A single mother thrust into an unwanted situation, yet, unable to entirely escape the destruction that put her in that position to begin with. Unhappiness flows through each and every character, however. Cianfrance's hasn't learned (or perhaps he's unwilling?) how to please. He more than makes up for this with his ability to incapacitate.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a consequence, and in that, Harper Lee's text rings true. It's how we are raised who we surround ourselves with that will ultimately lay the groundwork to the people we will inevitably become. Blessed to a life of privilege and opportunity, or forgotten, and doomed to replay the sins of our predecessors.