This movie was not what I expected. And it’s not, I imagine, what most people that go to see it expect.
The greatest surprise of this film also may have been its biggest weakness: it is actually three movies in one. You don’t know that going into it because the mainstream trailer, understandably, makes it look like a movie starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper:
You can’t blame the studio for marketing it that way. And indeed, even many of the reviews have sound bites, many of them touted in the trailer, that misrepresent the movie. “A riveting crime drama,” Entertainment Weekly wrote. Well, sure it is– for the first hour. But then, as we turn away from Gosling and even from Cooper, we see it’s a story about fathers and sons (mostly the sons). It’s riveting at times (not always), but it’s mostly slow, and it isn’t, in the end, about crime. It’s about family. In more minor ways, I’d say it’s also about loneliness, suburbia, and trying to fit in.
Beginning now, spoilers follow. I want to have a conversation with those who’ve watched the film, and that’s what this post is meant to be; it isn’t a straight-up review for people who haven’t seen it.
It’s actually funny, in retrospect, just how greatly the previews and posters for this film misrepresented the movie. Watching the trailers, you believed it was a film about a delinquent Gosling being hunted/chased down by cop Cooper. At the end of most, the two of them appear to be speeding toward an inevitable crash, one you’d think will be the climax of the film. Sure, their stories intertwining is what ultimately happens, but the characters don’t even come together until almost an hour in, and they’re only in contact for one scene. Then Gosling’s character goes out the window, literally.
That moment was a shock to me. Suddenly the person you thought was the protagonist of this movie is gone. But this is not a movie with any protagonist at all (I think that’s more correct than saying it has four protagonists). The only is main character, or at least constant entity and presence, it not any person but the town of Schenectady. (The title comes from the meaning of the Native American word.) Once Gosling (Luke) is out of the picture we quickly shift to Bradley Cooper (Avery) and his struggle being a young, ambitious guy on the force and dealing with corruption from higher-ups like the always-menacing Ray Liotta.
Frankly I found Avery’s storyline to be less compelling, albeit very well-acted by Cooper. The content of his conversation with his stern father by the pool was predictable. And you don’t feel for him the way you felt for Luke—when Avery ultimately turns his police brothers in, there’s no sense of celebration or excitement. Of course, that’s the point—that it brings him no real satisfaction or joy, and as we see, he is a rather joyless character. Meanwhile, although Luke is dead, he remains a presence in the second third of the movie, an influence because of the way his death haunts Avery. Then, of course, in the final third, Luke is still a presence through his son, though a distant one. Avery is still around; it’s thus Cooper who has the film’s bigger role. If anything, the last character still standing at the end, the only one who has been around since the beginning, is the auto-shop bum played so well by Ben Mendelsohn (of The Dark Knight Rises and HBO’s “Girls”).
Once the story turned to the two sons, the movie lost me a little bit. I appreciated the sort of ballsiness and risk director Cianfrance took by having the film span so many years, but I almost felt as though, if the point was, in the end, a statement about fathers and sons and certain traits and miseries being passed on through generations, why stop with these sons, why not go another level into the future? That’s not to say the casting wasn’t good—it was perfect. The young actor who plays Luke’s son, Dane DeHaan, has a sort of haunting, wracked face that works well. He could very plausibly be Luke’s kid. Meanwhile, the obvious choice would have been to make Avery’s kid a direct copy as well, make him a clean-cut, spoiled politician’s son, but instead AJ (played by Emory Cohen) is a thuggish bully and drug addict who likely is rebelling against his father’s image.
The kids (shown above) are both very good, but their section of the movie is its weakest part. As A.O. Scott wrote in the Times, “It is in the third-act swirl of revenge and redemption that “The Place Beyond the Pines” goes wrong, trading its grit and psychological insight for overwrought, capitalized emotions.” Some of the interactions between the two sons, though dramatic and intense, are obvious and we’ve seen them before in many movies about schoolboy angst.
What I do appreciate about the movie overall, along with its beauty (it is truly a beautiful film—Scott faults Cianfrance for using the same shots repeatedly but I didn’t care a whit), is the way that it keeps your allegiances shifting. Who are we meant to root for? If it’s Luke at the beginning, and then it’s not Avery, who is an asshole, it suddenly becomes Avery toward the end, when Luke’s son brings him out to the woods and you realize how worn down, tormented and weak Avery is from his past. That, too, is one of the bigger presences in this movie—the past, and its ruinous impact on people, even once they’re gone.