The Native (Mohawk) word skahnéhtati, long since known as “Schenectady” (a small city in upstate New York, near Albany), translated, means “the place beyond the pines.” Schenectady, a former manufacturing center and the home base of General Electric, lost most of its manufacturing jobs and close to a third of its population since 1950. But since the late 20th century, it has been shaping a new economy, based in part on renewable energy.
“Schenectady,” might as well mean “Anytown, USA” though, as the setting of “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2013) is one of rural back roads, auto-body shops, farms, traveling carnivals, small-town cops, and romantic tattooed men. The surrounding landscapes are beautiful and well represented in the film.
In the quietly decaying tragic-Americana setting of this fine film, the story that’s told is one of far-reaching repercussions, legacy, and how the loss of the father’s virtue lands on the son.
Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a road-circus motorcycle stunt performer with a dagger tattoo near his left eye, and, just like in the folk ballad “Silver Dagger”:
He’s got a chain five miles long.
And on every link a heart does dangle.
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.
Back in town after a year on the road, Luke looks up ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), who in the meantime, unbeknownst to him, has had his baby. She also has a new man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali).
Luke’s life suddenly has real meaning. Quitting the circus life, he becomes a local mechanic. As the grim reality dawns that he’ll never be able to adequately provide for a family by tinkering with engines, he begins robbing banks using his unique stunt-cyclist skill set. Turns out he and his mechanic boss, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), had led a brief life of crime some years before, and now team up again for the bank heists.
Luke’s Luck Leaves
Luke’s luck leaves him during a high-speed chase on a bike with a flat tire. Neophyte policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) leaves Luke’s newborn son fatherless. Cross is quietly devastated. And now begins Act 2.
Reminiscent of the film “Cop Land,” Cross is drawn against his will into a corrupt cop underground, which is helmed by scary detective Deluca (Ray Liotta). Cross escapes by setting his sights on politics. He carries a family photo of Luke in his wallet, subconsciously seeking redemption.
In Act 3, the sons of Glanton and Cross, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), respectively, cross paths 15 years later, and act out their own additional episode of the tragedy.
Three in One
Each act could be a movie unto itself. The film does work as whole, but lacks the feeling of a large time arc. The main reason is that Cooper’s character needed to visually age more. It’s hard to imagine that the hair and makeup department on a major motion picture could not get this right.
Gosling has trodden, or rather ridden, this ground before in “Drive” (2011). He stunt-drove cars there; he stunt-drives motorcycles here. Knowing Hollywood, it’s surprising he didn’t stunt-drive a boat or a plane next, but it could still happen, and we’ll enjoy watching him do it—Gosling drives a mean stunt.
The scenes of Cross’s dealings with the corrupt local PD and the district attorney (Bruce Greenwood) are the strongest in the film. This section is grounded, convincing, and disturbing. The final act, however is weak due to the fact that Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen are just not Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.
Ben Mendelsohn, as Luke’s boss and bank-robbing partner, belongs to the ranks of talented Australian actors who play Americans more believably than Americans do.
Native-American tribes made no decisions without their elders first pondering the effects any action would have, reverberating downward for seven generations. The film’s title, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” serves as a call to reflect, ahead of time, on the places beyond ourselves, namely, how our actions will affect others in the future.
Interestingly, in real life, Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling ended up having two babies and are still together. They clearly found a place beyond the pines of Schenectady.
‘The Place Beyond the Pines’
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: March 29, 2013 (U.S. release)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars