NEW YORK (CNS) — We have the assurance of the Old Testament that the iniquity of a father will be visited upon his children (Nm 14:18). That happens more than once in “The Place Beyond the Pines” (Focus).
Director and co-writer (with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) Derek Cianfrance elevates a standard crime drama into a wrenching and profound morality tale about ordinary lives caught in the balance between good and evil. Each life decision carries a high price that few wish to pay, with the debt — and the consequences — passed on to the next generation.
The film’s title is also its setting, the titular phrase being one possible English translation of the Mohawk word from which the upstate city of Schenectady, N.Y., takes its name. The carnival comes to this depressed industrial burg, bringing with it “Handsome Luke” (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who rides around the inside of a steel cage like a gerbil on steroids.
Luke is thrown for a different kind of loop when his ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes) comes to see his show. She has a surprise for him: a baby son. But Romina wants love, not a husband; she’s living with Kofi (Mahershala Ali) and planning her future.
Fatherhood transforms Luke. Sneaking into a Catholic church to watch his son being baptized — a rite depicted here with refreshing reverence and accuracy — Luke has a tearful epiphany (the redemptive nature of water is a recurrent image throughout the film). He pledges to quit the circus, win Romina back, and provide for his new family.
Sensible fathers resolved on such a course would get a proper job. Luke instead decides to rob banks, relying on his motorcycle skills for smooth getaways. He hooks up with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a demented auto-body mechanic and petty thief, to plan the heists.
They are initially very successful — becoming, so to speak, the Clyde & Clyde of the Mohawk Valley. Flush with cash, Luke showers Romina and the baby with gifts, enflaming Kofi’s jealousy. Then Luke beats Kofi to a pulp, and lands in jail.
Not, however, for long. More determined than ever, Luke resumes his life of crime, this time without Robin’s help. “If you ride like lightning you’re gonna crash like thunder,” Robin warns.
That fall happens midway through the film, when “The Place Beyond the Pines” takes a dramatic turn. Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop, gets his big break, tracking down the elusive bank robber. Like Luke, Avery has a baby son, and has high hopes for his future.
To elaborate further would spoil the outcome of the film. Suffice it to say that Luke and Avery’s interaction has devastating consequences — not only for them, but for their families, and, especially, their sons.
Cianfrance’s picture offers a powerful message about temptation and relativism, as well as the role of conscience and the effect of one individual’s actions on others; though the choices made by the conflicted characters are not, of course, always ideal ones.
The film contains action violence including gunplay, brief gore, frequent drug and alcohol use, a instance of distasteful humor, a scene of sensuality, and a couple of uses each of profane and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.