The father-son relationship has been the study of literature and film since the respective inception of both mediums. From Oediupus and Hamlet to The Godfather and Big Fish, this is a subject that has always been rife with dramatic and multifarious implications. Derek Cianfrance's fourth feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is an often wrenching portrait of the lengths fathers will go for their sons, as well as the unbreakable bond of reverence sons have for their fathers. Regardless of a father's circumstance in life, he will always find a way to be connected with his son--whether financially or emotionally. And likewise, his son always finds a way (whether subconsciously or consciously) to emulate his father.
From the very moment that The Place Beyond the Pines begins, it is notable for its sound editing and the buildup to the moment we first see Luke Glanton's (Ryan Gosling) face. A semi-renowned motorcycle stuntman (yes, it sounds vaguely akin to his character in Drive), Luke travels from city to city showcasing his talent. The night of this particular show, a former fling of his, Romina (Eva Mendes), stops by to see him. She asks if he remembers her name, which he instantly utters. In turn, he asks if she wants a ride home. When Romina gets off his bike with no intention of inviting him in, Luke tries to weasel his way into the house by saying he won't be back in Schenctady for another year. She scoffs and says, "Another year, huh?" Gently spurning his advances, she tells him she has someone in her life already and that she just wanted to see him again.
Evidently, Luke is unable to get Romina out of his mind all that time as he finds himself on her front doorstep a year later. When her mother, Malena (Olga Merediz), answers the door with a baby in her arms, Luke's interest is piqued. Malena hesitantly tells him that the baby, named Jason, is his, perhaps setting off a tragic and astonishing chain of events that might have been avoided otherwise. Upon learning that he has a son, Luke immediately goes to the diner where Romina works to confront her about Jason. She defends herself by saying that he up and left town without ever contacting her again. Distraught and overwhelmed, Luke doesn't know quite how to proceed with this new information. Although Romina insists that she's fine living in the home of her boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke's instinct is to give up stunt driving the next day and stay in town to be near Jason. Romina, however, is unaware of this impromptu decision and is less than thrilled when he shows up at Kofi's house unannounced on the day of Jason's baptism.
As Luke watches the baptism from an outside looking in perspective in one of the pews, he begins to openly weep over the love he feels for his son. As his presence is persistently rejected by Romina, Luke turns to the only solace he knows: Riding his motorcycle. As he blazes through the pine-filled forest, he encounters another motorcycle rider--though not with nearly the same abilities and quickness of pace as him. The two seem to strike an immediate friendship based on the tacit knowledge that the other one is a distinct loner. Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) offers Luke a ride back from the woods after noting that it will save him on gas money. In the car, Robin suggests that Luke should work for him performing odd mechanic jobs. Luke, in no position to turn down any form of work, accepts right away.
In spite of his gratitude for the job, Luke can't help but be dissatisfied with the minimal stipend. When he complains to Robin about it, his suggestion is to start robbing banks, to which Luke replies, "Go fuck yourself." The idea starts to sound less and less absurd after Luke tries to convince Romina that he can pay for a house for her and Jason to live in. Romina tells him it sounds like a nice dream and then goes back to waiting tables. Realizing that he’ll never have enough money to support his son unless he uses the “skill set” he has at his disposal, Luke tells Robin that he wants in on this bank robbing scheme—the key to which is having Robin wait for him with his truck on a side road and letting Luke ride into the back of it so the police lose track of him. The plan goes off without a hitch every time, until Luke starts to get overly ambitious. In the meantime, he’s also been thrown in jail for assaulting Kofi with a wrench after coming into his house to assemble a crib he bought for Jason.
Because Romina is unwilling to let Luke truly be a part of Jason’s life, Luke starts to take greater risks, including robbing a bank without Robin to help him. It is at this point in the film that it splits into a second movie. Vertigo-ian in its length and the separate story that it tells during the second half of the film, we are introduced to police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who ends up apprehending and killing Luke after his bank robbery goes awry and he ends up getting a flat tire and retreating into a residential home. With a one-year-old of his own, the guilt of taking Jason’s father away from him weighs on Avery endlessly. Things start to get even more Homeric and Shakespearean when the film cuts to fifteen years later and Jason becomes friends with Avery’s son, AJ (Emory Cohen). In the fifteen year since Luke’s death, Avery has risen through the ranks of law enforcement (barely aging, one might add, while Romina suddenly looks like a grandmother) and is now running for attorney general.
As Jason learns more of the truth about who his father was, it becomes clear that so much of Luke’s personality is present within him. Taking the concepts of redemption and forgiveness to new heights as the third act reaches its crescendo, The Place Beyond the Pines solidifies Cianfrance’s to not only tackle unpleasant subject matters in a palatable way (just as he did with Blue Valentine), but also his ability to re-envision the film epic in a modern setting. Although the movie tops out at a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, it is almost as though it feels like half the time because of how easily it is to be drawn into the world Cianfrance has created for his characters. Oh yeah, and Mike Patton’s score rivals theBlue Valentine soundtrack in its goodness.