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Men and motors in American suburbia

Derek Cianfrance’s fathers-and-sons triptych The Place Beyond the Pines feels epic and homespun all at once.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Editor

Topics Politics

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As I sat, lapping up the opening scenes of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, I was struck by a peculiar sense of déjà vu.

A lengthy tracking shot begins proceedings, following behind ‘Handsome’ Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) as he plods through a fairground, puffing on a masticated cigarette, before climbing atop a motorbike and riding full-throttle into a spherical cage – performing death-defying feats for the ogling punters. After the show, he spots Romina (Eva Mendes), a fairweather fling from the last time the fair was in town. It turns out she’s since had his child, and our face-tatted hero decides to stick around and try to be the father he himself never had. He quits the stunt-bike game and finds a little work with Ben Mendelsohn’s affable rummy mechanic in his rag-end repair shop. But with a family to provide for and a new fella on the scene taking his place at the head of the table, he decides to deploy his unrivalled skills behind the handlebars to rob a string of banks.

Now, swap fag for matchstick, Eva Mendes for Carey Mulligan, and dirt bike for souped-up Impala, and you’ve essentially got Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 smash neo-noir that proved Gosling was more than just a swoon-inducer. But while the similarities soon fade as this far grander, 16-year saga unfurls, there’s something about it that still feels strangely familiar.

Luke’s story is but the first chapter in this sprawling triptych. Suddenly – in a stark twist it’d be shameful to spoil – the focus shifts to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop whose rash actions in the line of duty cast him emotionally adrift from his own family. Next, the action darts forward an entire generation, looking in on the adolescent sons of the two men. As the infernal machine begins to whir and the sins of their fathers fall upon their greasy little heads, it puts one in mind of a Greek tragedy, one you can’t put your finger on, perhaps told to you on a dreary school day morning when you were still half asleep.

The near two-and-a-half-hour drama marches along with all the aplomb and self-assurance this epic form affords, while enthusing the story with a brusque Americana. Standing against the pine-ensconced backdrop of Schenectady, NY – seemingly trapped in perpetual magic hour – the characters are a mess of contradictions. Gosling’s Luke is the rough and ready wrong ‘un trying to do the right thing by nefarious means, while Avery is the idealistic college man who joins the force to make a difference but ends up doing something he’ll always regret. While Cooper’s comedic inflections still grin through and raise a smile where perhaps they shouldn’t, these are two stellar central performances. Meanwhile, after being kidnapped by a troll in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors last year, Mendes tosses the audience another curveball, ditching her usual steamy femme fatale shtick and playing the put-upon baby mother with disarming earnestness.

The film wrestles with some of American cinema’s most weathered themes – masculinity, freedom, and darkness at the heart of the suburbs – but never manages to slide fully into easy archetypes. Cianfrance’s unassuming style and penchant for casting non-actors in supporting roles injects ever more freshness and naturalism into the overarching melodrama of it all.

But, alas, this delicate balance is thrown off by the final act. Dane DeHaan’s weedy turn as Luke’s progeny, Jason, is bang-on, but Emory Cohen’s wise-guy Avery Junior (AJ to his pals) is a farcical misfire, swaggering about like the token tough in a half-baked teen drama. And while the denouement arrives with plenty of grit in its teeth, it eventually dissolves into cornball sentiment, as the two lads manage to, in their own stilted way, reconnect with their respectively estranged paters.

This makes for an unconvincing and unfortunate end to an otherwise enthralling drama that feels epic and homespun, familiar and mysterious, all at once.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for The Place Beyond the Pines here:

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Topics Politics

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