In literature, a tragic hero is a protagonist who has all the characteristics of a classic hero, but also possesses a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. He means well and often sacrifices for the good of his community. As a result, the audience tends to feel pity rather than contempt at his downfall. On its surface The Place beyond the Pines is a simple crime drama about a bank robber and the cop who seeks him, but at its heart it is a character study of heroes with fatal flaws. Unfortunately, the film itself is a tragic hero. Its elegant and heroic first two acts are marred by a third that is simply overflowing with fatal flaws.
The first act follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt rider who travels the carnival circuit from town to town. He is a hero only in the sense of his earthy charisma and his devil-may-care courage during his “death-defying stunts.” But when he learns that Romina (Eva Mendez), a girl in one of the towns he visits, has given birth to his baby, he is struck with a deep desire to be a good father to that child. He quits the carnival and moves into town, but he has no way of supporting a family. He meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who hires him to work at his mechanic shop, but there is barely enough work to support one person, let alone two. What’s an undereducated adrenalin junkie to do? Rob banks, of course.
Like his namesake Robin Hood, Robin seems to think it’s OK to take money from a bank when “you’re only earning minimum wage.” He teaches Luke the tricks of the trade: No more than one or two jobs a year. Never use guns — they’re vulgar. “I never needed anything but a note,” he explains. “You’re gonna like doing this — it’s the biggest rush of your life.” Luke violates every rule except the last one. (About this time the person sitting behind me said to the person sitting next to him, “That’s smart. I couldn’t quit.” Hmmmm!)
The contrast between the tender father and the terrorizing bank robber is profound. We know Luke is doomed, but we empathize with his motive, largely because of Gosling’s uncanny ability to communicate deep emotion with his eyes and body language. He is one of the most gifted actors of this generation.
With a nifty and unexpected transition, Avery (Bradley Cooper) enters the film and act two begins. Avery is a rookie cop who happens to be on duty while Luke is pulling a job. That Avery is intended to be a foil for Luke is clear, because the family setups are almost identical: both households include a “wife,” a mother-in-law, and a one-year-old son. Both even have the same crystal-clear blue eyes. And both are pressured by their peers to turn toward a life of crime. In this film, cops are robbers too. As with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, the paths of these two characters are fated to meet.
As AJ, Emory Cohen doesn’t just go over the top; he heads halfway to the moon with overacting.
Acts one and two are tightly written, suspensefully directed, and expertly acted. Everything about them is first rate, even to the dissonant music that surfaces, at moments of character transition, to suggest that something is not right. The film is subtly nuanced and brilliantly performed. But then act three appears, and spoils the whole effect.
Fifteen years have passed, and the sons of these two men, Luke and Avery, have ended up in the same school. One pressures the other to score him some drugs — with far-reaching consequences. The story idea is good, but the acting destroys the act. As AJ, Emory Cohen doesn’t just go over the top; he heads halfway to the moon with overacting. He’s like a double dose of Marlon Brando and James Dean — brooding lips, simmering eyes, and potty mouth — and the verbal malfeasance doesn’t make sense, because his character has been raised in a life of privilege. Sure, rich kids curse a blue streak. But they don’t develop grammatically lazy street accents peppered with "he don't" and "I ain't" after being raised by parents with perfect diction. It reveals a flaw in the script as well as in the acting that Cohen is unable to demonstrate AJ's rebelliousness without modeling him on a poor kid from the Bronx. Cohen’s character is simply laughable, and that’s what the audience does during act three — it laughs. A lot. And it’s really too bad, because the story is so good, and the first two parts are outstanding.
Despite its flaws, The Place beyond the Pines is well worth seeing. It’s a movie about how good people go bad, how bad people try to be good, and how some people rise above peer pressure. And for the most part, the quality of the filmmaking is heroic.