The Place Beyond The Company You Keep

by antigob

Luke is a daredevil motorcycle rider. He lives for the moment, and has very few ties to the world except his motorbike and job at the carnival. When Luke returns to a small New York State town and discovers he has an infant son from a previous fling, he decides to face up to his responsibilities and get involved with his upbringing. But how can a man covered in tattoos and with a transient attitude to life transcend his place in life to provide for a family? The answer it seems lies beyond the pines where he meets Robin, a small-town auto shop owner. Robin is drawn to Luke, initially impressed with his motorcycle skills. He provides Luke with a minimum wage job as a mechanic and even a place to live. But Luke needs more money, and so Robin (played by the excellent Ben Mendelsohn, the star of the amazing Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom), casually suggests they rob a bank because he’s done it a few times and it’s easy. For a good while after seeing TPBTP, I struggled to reconcile Ryan Gosling’s man-of-few-words act with the development of Luke’s character. He seemed too simplistically drawn: he lives an outsider life as a carny, he has an enormous amount of fuzzy tattoos and only when he starts to rob banks does he appear without a cigarette in his mouth. Okay, I get it: he’s born to lose. And it’s a shame because Ryan Gosling really throws his weight into making the conflicted and angry Luke at least a little likeable. However, during the excellent bank robbery scenes I started to change my mind about Luke. I think it was when he tells everyone to hit the ground in a high-pitched voice; he was taking a massive risk. He felt believable.

The second part of the film switches focus to Avery played by Bradley Cooper. He’s a rookie cop with an influential judge father. Avery soon finds his ethics compromised when he becomes a hero and then involved with Detective Luca (a great performance by Ray Liotta). Avery is soon trapped between his ambition and his dedication to his family. The pines are soon revealed again as a symbolic location, a place where both Luke and Avery must decide the course of their lives.

The third act? Well, it’s best if you watch the film, but perhaps the only thing that can be said about it is it’s like Marmite: you’ll either love it and think it makes the whole film complete, or see as a cosmic piece of narrative that takes the idea of resolution a step too far.

There are many things I love about this film: director Derek Cianfrance has framed this story in three distinct and dramatically interesting parts. It’s a film with ambition, and I’m all for that. The cinematography is nicely autumnal and feels rich with melancholy. The motorcycle/robbery scenes are thrilling, and the acting throughout is fantastic. And even though Ryan Gosling does fallback on the puppy dog down the pound act a little too much for my tastes, you really do get a sense that his Luke is a lost man trying to find his place in the world instead of drifting through it. Mike Patton has also turned in a fine soundtrack full of unsettling tones; I hope it gets its dues with a proper release.

But there are problems with the story, perhaps because three people wrote the script. Aside from being too long, the narrative, which essentially deals with characters defined as archetypes – the born loser, the ambitious cop – never really convinced me that these people were truly trapped by their circumstances. They all have a safety net: sure Luke is poor, but he doesn’t owe a massive amount of money to the wrong people. He is never mortally compelled to commit his crimes. Avery finds himself in an ethical shit storm, but he also has a capable father who can help him figure a way out of it. And as for the third act, much as I enjoyed the performances, for me it was just a little too unbelievable.

I admit I have a bit of a man crush on Robert Redford. I’m totally going to rip his style as I grow older. Or rather my wife has told me I’m going to rip his style as I grow older, because she has a crush on him too. So we both took our giddy selves down to the cinema under the Lincoln plaza to watch his new film The Company You Keep, a film you could unfairly call The Fugitive for the Baby Boomer generation.

It opens with Sharon Soldarz arrested at a gas station for being a fugitive member of the radical activist group, Weather Underground. It seems she was part of a group behind a bank robbery in Michigan in which a security guard was shot. Ambitious local reporter, Ben Shepherd manages to get an interview with Soldarz and learns from a former flame and now FBI agent that she was discovered by chance from a wire tap on her old friend and organic fruit n veg n weed farmer Billy Cusimano. However, in her interview, Soldarz says she was on her way to surrender to the authorities as her children are now old enough and she must reconcile her guilt over her past actions. Meanwhile, Billy Cusimano, upset that he may have blown his friend’s cover approaches Albany lawyer, Jim Grant to represent her. Jim blows him off, and for good reason, because Jim is really Nick, a member of the same Weather Underground group, and the prime suspect for the killing of the security guard. Still with me?

Ben’s investigations end up leading to Jim/Nick’s door and after an uncomfortable and evasive meeting, the reporter’s interests are sufficiently peaked to do a little bit of digging on Jim/Nick who we also learn is a widower and a single parent to a young daughter. The digging uncovers Nick’s true identity to the Feds and then it becomes a race against time for him to clear his name before the net closes around him.

This gives Redford plenty of opportunity to furtively stalk about the place with a baseball cap pulled low and meet a veritable roll call of some really cracking character actors: Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot (as Sam Elliot), Richard Jenkins, Julie Christie. In they come to say, ‘it’s been thirty years!’

It all ends up in Michigan with Nick confronting his past and Ben uncovering the connections for us. And that’s where this fairly confusing and sketched out story really falls apart. It seems to me that there wouldn’t be film if someone had perhaps pressed Sharon Soldarz to share what actually happened on the day of the robbery. And why wouldn’t she? She was turning herself in anyway.

There are also huge problems with the chronology of the film. It’s set in the present day. So thirty years ago is 1983, a good ten years after the very end of the Weather Underground, and this might seem a bit nitpicking, but a big part of the plot hinges on it – a plot that resolves far too quickly and in a way that relies on Redford’s charisma. Who knew such a wrinkly smile could so utterly melt the hearts of committed radicals? I really wanted to like The Company You Keep, but it’s pretty indulgent and a right mess in terms of narrative.

Both films deal with the sins of a previous generation visiting the next, but rather more interestingly, is that both have a very authoritarian feel to them.  In the Company You Keep, Nick’s fight has left him, he renounces his past actions, the Feds can quickly track and keep up with him; it seems incredible he managed to evade the authorities for so long. In The Place Beyond The Pines, Luke and Avery’s success hinges on how much they embrace the system: one rejects it, while the other plays it his advantage.

My impression of life in America is that at some point you conform to an archetype and you stick with it. You could transcend your environment and enjoy great success, but you’ll be defined by society as the type of person people think you are: blue collar, WASP – whatever. When I look at the advertising here, the characters that portray the consumer always appear to be everymen or indicative of a group. There are no individuals we can aspire to become. You find your place, you fit in and you stay there. So even though The Place Beyond The Pines sort of works and The Company You Keep sort of doesn’t, I enjoyed them both for exploring ideas of what it’s like to be constrained and defined by your position within society.