Ryan Gosling’s latest big-screen foray is far from traditional Hollywood fare. The Place Beyond the Pines — also starring Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ray Liotta — re-teams the A-list actor with director Derek Cianfrance, the man behind the brilliantly devastating Blue Valentine. As we’ve hinted at before, revealing exactly what makes this film so different would spoil part of the (bleak) fun, but what has been made clear is the basic setup: Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a tatted-up stunt biker who discovers he has a previously unknown son. To try to support his newly found progeny, he turns to a life of crime, robbing banks to bankroll his child’s care.
And while the film itself is most definitely unique, that particular trope remains a familiar one: A character who is basically good at heart resorts to breaking the law for mostly unselfish reasons — criminal intent with the best of intentions. There’s a long history of this happening at the cinema; click through below for ten prime examples, from the deadly serious to the absurd.
Whether you’re talking about the Academy Award-winning film, the internationally lauded stage show, or the original 19th-century novel, at the center of it all sits Jean Valjean, a man who has spent nearly two decades in prison at the beginning of the narrative. Why was here there? Because he stole a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. It may have occurred before we actually meet him, but it informs everything that follows. This simple act of thievery is what leads to everything else, including his further infractions in search of a better life.
In this indictment of the US health-care system, Denzel Washington plays John Quincy Archibald, a father who finds out that his insurance won’t cover the heart-transplant surgery that his young son needs to survive. After exhausting every avenue, and with time running out, Archibald takes over the hospital, holding hostages at gunpoint while demanding that his son be given treatment. With his frustration all too easy to share, it’s one of those stories that makes you seriously question what you would do in the same situation.
As proof that Nicolas Cage was once, in fact, extremely cool, you can’t do much better than this early Coen Brothers classic. Unlike some of our heavier examples, this one is pure comedy, but in the fantastically skewed way only the Coens can craft it. As bumbling ex-con “Hi” McDunnough, along with his policewoman wife, “Ed” (Holly Hunter), he wants nothing more than to live a quiet, family-oriented life. But when Ed discovers she can’t have children, they decide to kidnap a baby instead. It’s one of the only films where you’ll see a convenience store get held up for Pampers.
Thelma & Louise
We all know how this turns out — chances are, even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve seen the infamous closing scene — but that’s just part of the mythology that puts Thelma and Louise on a level with Bonnie and Clyde. The interesting thing is that the catalyst that starts their spiral into the outlaw life is a totally unplanned act of self defense. As things progress, though, the pair revel more and more in their flouting of the law, as if it were an inevitability. This was also pretty much Brad Pitt’s big break.
Another hostage situation, but this time with a twist. In The Negotiator, the guy holding the hostages is a himself a hostage negotiator. Samuel L. Jackson plays Danny Roman, who finds himself in this odd situation after being set up for a crime he didn’t commit (another very popular storytelling device!). He takes over the office of the Internal Affairs detective investigating him, and ends up having to face off against another negotiator, played by Kevin Spacey. Meta!
Catch Me If You Can
To be fair, Frank Abagnale’s crimes fully define his character in this pre-buff Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle. But the fact is he’s still just a kid, and his increasingly elaborate cons all originally stemmed from trouble at home. From forging checks to impersonating a pilot, at the heart of it all, we can see he’s just looking to be loved and find a place in the world. Clearly things here have been romanticized a bit from the true story it’s based on, but even the real Abagnale got a happy ending.
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Coen Brothers love criminal capers, so it’s only natural that they get multiple entries here. This lesser-known flick stars Billy Bob Thornton as a brow-beaten barber who sees a shot at better things through a deal in the dry-cleaning business. The only problem is that he has to resort to blackmail to get the money he needs to invest, and that unfortunately leads to murder. Look out for a pre-fame Scarlett Johansson. There may or may not be aliens, too.
Fun With Dick & Jane
This one is a remake (the original is from the ’70s), so really, either version of this film could be on this list — but we’re going with the Jim Carrey version just because it has Judd Apatow’s name on the script. It’s the story of a couple (Dick and Jane, natch) who decide to try their hands at robbery after he loses his job as a high-powered executive. Following a few false starts, it turns out they’re actually quite good at it. Of course, this being a comedy and all, things wind up far better than they would in real life — or any movie approximating it.
I Love You Phillip Morris
And speaking of Jim Carrey, his best work in years is also the story of a man who falls into crime after his life takes a major turn. In this case, it’s coming out of the closet that flips things upside-down for former policeman Steven Jay Russell. His newfound lifestyle becomes a lot more costly than what he was accustomed to, which leads him into the world of con artistry. That’s something that actually serves him well when he’s incarcerated, though, as it enables him to escape a whopping four times to meet the love of his life (the titular Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor). This one’s based on a true story, too.
Sugar & Spice
Perhaps the least likely suspects to commit armed robbery would be a high-school cheerleading squad — which is clearly what someone thought when this film got greenlit. When Diane gets pregnant and decides to make a go at having a family with her boyfriend Jack, she finds that teen pregnancy isn’t as glamorous as everyone says. (Just kidding, no one says that.) So, to make ends meet, she rounds up her squad and gets into the heist business. Better yet, they use cheerleading moves as part of their capers. In case you hadn’t guessed, this one falls into the comedy basket, as well.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of additional examples of movies where people do bad things for good reasons. If we missed your favorite here, please let us know in the comments! Just remember, no spoilers about The Place Beyond the Pines. You can catch that one in select cities now, and in wide release starting April 12.