Derek Cianfrance weaves an intricate tale with The Place Beyond the Pines. The story follows how the crime of one person can ring throughout a family through generations.
Luke (Ryan Gosling) commits a crime that Avery (Bradley Cooper) must deal with as a police officer. Their sons later feel the impact of the decisions made prior to and on the day of the crime.
While the film uses a triptych style of storytelling — dividing the saga into three parts — it just feels like too much for one film. If it had committed to being an epic, like Gone with the Wind, or dividing the story into different films, it would have been easier to palate. The film is still emotionally impactful, but its pacing can certainly leave you wanting.
When The Place Beyond the Pines begins, we are following the life of Luke. Gosling’s character in this movie is clearly in the same lineage as his character in Drive: quiet, good with cars, and caring of those he loves. After learning that a woman he had a brief fling with, Romina (Eva Mendes), gave birth to his child, he does his best to make the money to support them.
We are barely invested in Luke and Romina’s lives before Luke is shot by Officer Avery. The film turns to Avery, his recovery, and his fight to uncover corruption in his police department. It’s a tension-filled part of the story that resolves quicker than I was expecting.
Avery becomes assistant district attorney, a position which molds him into an uncaring, politically-motivated man. His son, AJ (Emory Cohen), has become a troublemaker and involved with drugs. AJ befriends Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son. Their friendship wavers when they find out the truth.
The transitions between each story feel a bit abrupt. Though the stories bleed into each other, the transition from Luke to Avery to AJ and Jason is jarring.
We only get to know Luke for a brief period of time before Avery ends his short crime spree. There’s not a lot of backstory given either for how Luke ended up where he is or how his relationship with Romina developed. When we meet AJ near the end of the film, we don’t get to spend very much time exploring why he is the way he is. We know his parents divorced, but is that the reason why he causes trouble at school or why he gets involved with drugs?
The triptych style that Cianfrance uses is meant to depict how crime and other tragedies can ring through a family, even generations after the incidents happen. Each character in The Place Beyond the Pines is affected in some way by Luke’s bank robbery spree and eventual death. But we don’t get to spend enough time on the majority of these people.
Officer Avery’s storyline takes up the majority of the runtime and bleeds into both Luke and AJ and Jason’s story. It seems that he is the one most affected by the events in this story. He is the one that faces the backlash for killing Luke and the one who is nearly killed by Luke’s son. Even though The Place Beyond the Pines begins with Luke, Avery is the film’s true star.
While the triptych style is fascinating, this film could have been better as a story focused on Avery. The beginning could have focused on Avery and his family and his career in the force. Luke’s story could be told in flashbacks if needed. The main plot generally revolved around Avery and Luke, AJ, and Jason’s stories feel like filler.
However, this is how a triptych works the majority of the time. A triptych in art is a painting in three panels, with the two side panels being smaller in size compared to the middle one. The focus should be the middle but the side panels should also add something to the piece. In The Place Beyond the Pines, though, those side panels often function as decoration that didn’t necessarily need to be there.
While the storytelling style in The Place Beyond the Pines wasn’t my cup of tea, I admire its use and acknowledge that many fans of this film really enjoy it. I commend Cianfrance for choosing to not just go with the same rote style that every other movie goes with. Rather than tell one story from start to finish with the same main character and overarching plot, he chooses to create a small epic, in a sense.
Though I would rather have had an actual epic, The Place Beyond the Pines is a daring move for the modern filmgoer. Instead of spending four hours watching a grand epic, it’s only a couple spent watching how one family reacts and recovers from the actions of their relatives.
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