Was there something about the month of April that encouraged filmmakers to make pretty actors ugly? First it was James Franco's scary mouth hardware in Spring Breakers, and now some truly awful and excessive tattooing on Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines. (I am classifying this film in April although my review will appear in May.)
This film is really a story about people trapped in their fates, as determined by their economic classes. Ryan Gosling's character is poor, with few prospects (think about that before getting that many bad tattoos, especially facial ones!) and the only way he can attempt to get ahead is by breaking the law in ways that are not tolerated by those in power.
Bradley Cooper's character is at the other end of the spectrum. Son of a judge, law school graduate who has passed the bar, he has decided to become a police officer, and that's how his path crosses with Ryan Gosling's. We get to see how a scared new police officer can be swept up in the camaraderie of the force, paying little attention to the rules being broken. At least for a while. The veiled coaching about how he will respond to questions around his shooting of Gosling's bank robber morphs into explicitly illegal and off-the-books seizure of ill-gotten gains and he starts to have second thoughts.
Is it the guilt of having killed some child's father, or some malaise about the "search" of the mother's house? Whatever the source, there are a couple of feeble attempts to right that wrong and other future ones by ratting out those who are breaking the rules for their own benefit. He uses his revelations to buy himself a safer place in which to pursue his career, to the displeasure of his new boss, and then we see him later on using his position and influence to bend the rules for his son. Learned nothing from his past experiences, or learned everything from them?
Of course, the paths of those two sons – of shooter and shot – will cross tragically, if only to underline the repeated pattern that will emerge in how those boys deal with the world. Spoiled rich kid using others and breaking the rules, without consequences, of course. Poor but well-meaning kid driven to break the rules and suffer the consequences, at least until he is saved by the guilt of his father's shooter.
Maybe the most important lessons to retain from the film are that Bradley Cooper looks lovely in any outfit or position (jeans, uniform, suit, kneeling in the forest….) and that it looks like motorcycle-riding ability is genetic (the poor kid gets on for the first time and rides off into the sunrise like he's been doing it all his life).
The hanging question comes from the credits (yes, we are those people who stay to watch the credits). There was an item labelled "stunts" listing only two names: Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. Did they do all their own stunts? Or, more likely, which stunts did they do? How will I stand not knowing the answer to this nagging question?