Director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, Pines featured three distinct acts, featuring multiple generations of crime in upstate New York
The 2012 film The Place Beyond the Pines took its name from the Iroquois translation of Schenectady, the upstate New York town where the film was set. Not exactly a traditional setting for a crime movie, but then it’s not an especially traditional movie.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance, who two years earlier had been the masterpiece Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines was told in three separate movements, with the first two acts set in the early ’90s, and the third in the then-present day.
In the first and best, Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine leading man Ryan Gosling is Luke, a small-time motorcycle stuntman and occasional criminal, sporting tattoos, Metallica t-shirts, and bleached-blond hair. Gosling often looks glamorous in movies, but he looked much less so here.
Returning to Schenectady to find out he had fathered a small child with a local woman (Eva Mendes), Luke decides to team up with a local mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn, oozing sleaze), for a series of robberies of banks and other places. This part of the film is something of a neo-noir, making iconic use of Gosling on a motorcycle.
This ends badly, as you may have guessed, with Luke getting shot by fresh-faced cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) and falling out a window to his death. This kicks off the second act, a Serpico-style thriller in which Cooper faces off against a group of corrupt cops (led by Ray Liotta), and tries to do the right thing, eventually taking down the corrupt cop ring and, holding a law degree, getting promoted to the job of assistant district attorney.
In the third act, set 15 years later, the sons of the two men (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) meet one another, and eventually become aware that one of their fathers killed the other. Avery, meanwhile, is running for political office. Everything ends up cycling back to the beginning, concluding with a man driving at night on a motorcycle.
The three acts feel a lot like different movies, and I thought when I first saw it, and again on another viewing, that the first two acts are way better than the third. It might be because the first two parts are dominated by outstanding actors, while the third features two guys who aren’t up to that level.
Throughout, the supporting cast is first-rate, led by Mendes and Mendelsohn in the first part, Liotta is one of the finest of the many dirty-cop roles he played in his career. Mahershala Ali had an outstanding small role, years before his Oscars, and Harris Yulin made a great impression as Cooper’s father.
In the ten years since The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance has only directed one film, 2016’s literary adaptation The Light Between Oceans with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, although he did co-write and executive produce 2020’s Sound of Metal, getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Also that year, he wrote and directed the HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True.
The film earned a respectable $21.4 million in North America and more than doubled that internationally, eventually earning $47 million worldwide. It’s not exactly a household-name movie but it has a decent reputation.