Did you know that House of Cards' actor Mahershala Ali has a key role in Derek Cianfrance's triptych drama The Place Beyond the Pines, starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes? Well neither did I until about two weeks ago when I saw a post in the film's facebook page announcing his role of "Kofi", Eva Mendes' boyfriend in the film. Although I didn't think much of it at the time. I hadn't seen him in any of the marketing materials and there is barely a sighting of Ali in the film's trailer; "ho-hum" as Tambay would say. Speaking of, he posted a piece on black talent in front and behind the camera of the TV series House of Cards which mentions Ali's role as Remy Danton, who works as a lobbyist for a natural gas company. As a quick recap from that post, Ali has been seen on the screen for about a decade now, starting out as a regular in the series Crossing Jordan, The 4400 and Treme. He can also be seen on the big screen in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Predators. I certainly hope to see more of Ali in more substantive roles.
Opening on a limited release this weekend, Cianfrance's follow up to the lauded indie darling Blue Valentine is a 2 and 1/2 hour-long drama, divided into three closely interwoven stories that take place during a 15-year span, which focuses on the legacy of fathers and its impact in boys and men's lives. There's the central character Luke (SPOILERS AHEAD), played by the very reliable Ryan Gosling, as a motor bike stuntman who has a fling with diner waitress Romina (Eva Mendes) and upon returning back to town a year later discovers Romina has a child, HIS child, and mother and child are living in the house of her new beau Kofi, played by Ali, as a seemingly stable family.
Luke realizes that Kofi has not only won over the woman he has come to claim but has also taken over fathering duties. In an early scene, he follows them to church, and a heartbroken Luke watches Kofi and Romina actively participate in the baptism of Luke's biological son. While watching the film, I questioned the director's intent in casting Kofi, which by the way, I come to find out is an African name. I can't ignore the fact that Mendes character is a Latina who lives with her mother, who may be illegal (there's a scene referring to such). Perhaps it's safe to cast Ali as the head of this already ethnic circle? I'm just speculating and maybe playing devil's advocate.
However, there's an underlying motif of a sense of belonging, especially through Luke's character, seemingly a rebellious drifter and symbol for male bravado, that is until he is confronted with a fathering dilemma and finds himself unable to prove to Romina that he can come into their lives and provide for them. In a sense, casting Ali in the role of "step-father" would make it all the more obvious that this blond, blue-eyed child (forget Eva Mendes' dominant dark hair/eye genes!) belongs with Luke and vice versa, however dysfunctional Luke's character is and despite becoming a bank robber who's more notorious in each event out of desperation to win "his" family back.
The first part of the film is nothing short of riveting to watch, especially the bank robbery scenes and Luke's escapes from the cops in his motorcycle. Cianfrance knows a bit about creating morally ambiguous and complex characters. Luke is without direction and a criminal, yet he's willing to do anything to be there for his son. Romina isn't perfect either; she rekindles her romance with Luke behind Kofi's back. Bradley Cooper plays a cop who is guilt-ridden after being hailed a hero.
However, I must say Kofi was the most underwritten character in the film, one who we barely get to know. He seems like a decent person; he obviously took Romina and her son under his wing, which is a huge commitment, but the film leaves so much unanswered in such a critical role. Later in the film, Jason finds out the truth about his father, and distraught by it, seeks to make sense of it all in destructive ways. There are only a handful of scenes in which Ali is actually in, one which is the turning point of the film (he is sucker-punched by Luke, leaving him with a bloody nose). He's believable in the role, but ultimately the film never focuses on him.
In the latter part of the film, we see that Kofi stays with Romina and raises Jason, who at 17, resorts to pharmacy theft to provide drugs to his new high school friend in order to fit in. We feel that, although Jason appreciates Kofi as a father figure and defends him in one scene, Jason feels displaced. And also, it looks as if Kofi and Romina had another child (a teen girl of mixed race) who sits at the table with them. How was their family life? How do multi-racial families such as these fair when it comes to racial identity? Does it matter? Aside from one jovial conversation between Kofi and Jason, in which Kofi gives Jason his biological father's name, we don't truly see a profound father/son connection between them. Was he a good father? Was he supportive? Did Kofi discipline him? Did Jason feel loved? I understand a teen being curious about a biological father and looking for answers but for a film about fathers and sons, what about the man who actually raised the child as his own?
The film's first two parts work best, especially when it comes to the performances by Gosling and Bradley Cooper. The third act drags a little, loses momentum, although it makes up for it at the very end. If for nothing else, it's a film worth seeing for its performances and cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame).
Watch the trailer below for The Place Beyond the Pines: