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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

I had limited expectations coming into Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, and I believe that may have been the most suitable approach to the film. I saw it a bit later than I'd like, and I had heard mixed thoughts from a number of people whose taste I trust, so I was unsure what to think. For the first time in awhile I had zero preconceptions, which may have helped immensely, and I ended up enjoying The Place Beyond the Pines for what it is: a moving visual novel that is very haunting in parts and somewhat stretched in others. If nothing else, it's a film with incredible scope and a pair of central performances that I think are two of the best I've seen so far this year.

"Handsome Luke" (Ryan Gosling) a circus motorcycle daredevil, re-encounters a one-time stand Romina (Eva Mendes), after driving her home after one of his shows, he returns to her house the next day to discover that their tryst resulted in a baby named Jason. This causes Luke to stick around and want to raise the child with Romina despite two major obstacles: 1. Her live-in boyfriend and 2. The fact that he has no way to support a child if he stays in town. Luke takes up with a mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn), who recognizes his skills as a potential bank robber and convinces him to take on that trade, utilizing his motorcycle to speed away from the banks while his partner waits with a moving truck for him to shelter into. The second segment of the movie is about a police officer named Avery (Bradley Cooper), who is injured on the job and becomes a local hero, with a father (Harris Yulin) who spends more time concerned with his political ambitions than his son's recovery. When Avery is handed evidence money by some of his fellow officers as "hazard pay", he faces a moral dilemma. The last story takes place 15 years later, and focuses on the two sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) now high school aged and the friendship that they spark up and its eventual dissolution.

The overwhelming theme of The Place Beyond the Pines is the relationship between fathers and sons. Nowadays this almost feels like a cliche plot device, but Cianfrance does a nice enough job breathing life into the initial two segments of the film that when the final third somewhat falls flat, I still came away thinking the initial premise was able to carry the day. In the opening shots of the film, the narrative is put into place almost immediately: we get a chance to see Luke perform one of his tricks with two other motorcyclists spinning around him in a cage. The inner meaning of this to the three main protagonists becomes pretty clear when analyzed; there are three characters, that as much as the spin around each other, they can't escape one another and the long-ranging their decisions have on everyone else in that orbit.

A highlight of the script for me was just how narratively unpredictable it was in the stories of Luke and Avery. With Luke, a compelling character is painted, and when we first meet him we immediately get a sense of the pure depth that has been imbued into his characterization via Gosling. Luke, with tattoos that cover his arm and parts of his body, even a tear drop on his face, looks like a prototypical tough guy. Yet, Gosling's performance shows alot of what Luke's words tend to hide away. When he goes to mass to see Jason get baptized, he breaks into tears, possibly remembering just how little a role his own absent father played in his life? Or maybe his longing took on an emotional torrent that he couldn't control? Luke has aspirations to take care of his child, but at the same time his aspirations are so child-like "I want him to think of me everytime he eats ice-cream"/Bank Robbery as a serious way to continue to support Romina and Jason, that we can't help but feel sorry for the guy that can't pull it together. The script plays a very even-hand with Luke, the idea that he wants to be a real father to his child is commendable, but his more deplorable actions are quickly admonished. From attacking Romina's boyfriend in the home they share, to the eventual conclusion of his escapades, he's treated to basically what he had coming.

Avery may be even more complex, a fairly honest cop, and played beautifully by Bradley Cooper. When we're first introduced to him, we get treated to an atypical plot development, which is the post-traumatic coping for when a police officer guns someone down. The guilt of destroying another family begins to eat away at Avery and starts to affect his relationship with his own son, which will have consequences. His road to recovery (physical and then mental) is then fraught with perils, should he keep the money stolen for him by his fellow officers? Should he steal away evidence for his fellow cops? Should he "rat" them out to his superiors? At the same time, Avery has ambitions, he wants to become a lieutenant and later wants to fulfill his father's dream of him becoming DA, and the perilous road that gets him there also may come back to haunt him in a sense. Cianfrance's work here takes a look at two angles on the same problem. Neither man is a great father, even though they come from two very different socio-economic circles, and the end effects on their children are the same. You know he's a good guy, but his arrogance makes him really hard to like, particularly by the film's conclusion. This is powerful stuff, and while Cooper's role is the less flashy of the two major leads, I tend to lean towards his performance as perhaps the stronger of two, if only by a hair.

The disappointing part of The Place Beyond the Pines is when the third act comes into focus; it begins well enough in the introductions of both AJ and Jason in their ages 15 years later, but it's hampered by two significant problems: the first being the lack of overt presence by either Gosling or Cooper, whom had basically been the driving forces keeping the film on track. Dehaan and Cohen simply don't have the gravitas to pull off this fairly weighty material. The second issue is that the film shutters on a bit of a contrivance, and the realism that was built within the narrative for the first two acts starts to derail a bit into typical "dramatic" territory, rather than the exciting vistas that the initial stories built up. What the film tries to tackle here is just too overwrought. That's not to say there isn't good material here to mine, I think the presence of both sons at this age and the effects of the actions that came before have had on them is incredibly important to the overall theme. There's a beautiful circularity of shots where the camera tracks Luke from behind, and a lovely piano music plays when he's riding the backroads on his motorcycle. These same shots and scoring are reflected onto Jason later on, giving a sense of cycle to to Luke's lineage. Regrettably, this is the point where the film feels its longest, and at 2 hours 20 minutes or so, it's definitely lengthy, but these passages seem to make the film feel as though its easily eclipsed the 3 hour mark.

Despite the fact that I think The Place Beyond the Pines derails a bit in its final 20 minutes or so, and could have easily ended in a much more subtle fashion, it is still an incredibly rich epic. The story's generational spanning brings to mind a much shorter version of the Red Riding Trilogy, where one series of events begins a chain reaction that alters the course of lives over a number of years. What I found most exciting about what Cianfrance was delivering here, was that there were no flashbacks and no lazy outs in terms of reminding an audience member what occurred previously. This is a film that demands you pay attention and asks for a bit more from its audience. There's also amazing camerawork throughout, there's a particularly exciting chase scene when Luke is attempting to escape the police during one of his bank heists that appears to be one unbroken shot; as such, the cinematography is impressive throughout. Mike Patton also gives some fascinating scoring that I think is unlike most of what you'd hear in a feature like this, and hands over a sense of uniqueness that I really appreciated. In all, The Place Beyond the Pines is enjoyable despite its narrative stumbles towards the end, and I'm willing to concede a good deal of credit where ambition is concerned. Luckily Cianfrance is a director who isn't lacking there.

I give it a B
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  1. I just finished watching this movie and I was looking for something to help cement what I had seen. Your review is simply fabulous. I found myself agreeing with what you had to say and you pointed out things I hadn't connected and you made me go "ohh" a couple times. Thank you. Your review helped me appreciate what this film truly is.

  2. Thank you very much! That's one of the nicest compliments we've ever gotten, and thank you for reading!


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