Monday, April 15, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines


The Place Beyond the Pines is a film about life and death. About love and repulsion. Fathers and sons. Regret and acceptance. It’s a film of wide scope that purposefully keeps its story grounded in intimacy. It’s a film rooted in precision and void of artifice. And it’s a film that, because of all this, is damn hard to talk about.

The Place Beyond the Pines is defined by three very specific acts, which introduce characters, bring about a conflict, and resolve that conflict fittingly. Essentially, the movie plays like three 45-minute short films. Yes, characters overlap and everything is connected, but there’s a universal, seamless evolution for every character involved, which makes discussing the arc of the film as a whole very difficult. This is a damn fine film that does not deserve to have its revelations, complications, and exhilarations ruined in print. Such a thing would be criminal.


At the start of the film, we’re introduced to Luke (Ryan Gosling), a bleach-blond, fully tatted circus performer who, after a thrilling motorcycle cage show one evening, is approached by former fling Romina (Eva Mendes, perfect in her desperation). The last time Luke was in town, he and Romina had a one-night stand, which produced a son Luke never knew about. Upon learning this, Luke leaves the troupe and decides to be an active participant in his son’s life.

But there are problems.

Money. Luke has none. He takes a job at a hidden-away garage run by the affable Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, an actor who never does what you expect). Faithfulness. Romina is currently dating a kind and loyal guy who provides for Romina and her family. Either way, this new guy is an obstacle Luke must hurdle over, which, in his eyes, can only be done by earning more money.

One day after a few drinks, Robin relents to Luke that he used to rob banks. But because of the heat, he gave it up to live an isolated, burden-free life. But they get to talking. They plan, they execute, and money is gained. But as the common maxim dictates, money doesn’t buy happiness, a lesson Luke learns rather quickly.
That’s the first half of act one. And, believe me, The Place Beyond the Pines has a lot more. There is the story of a rookie police officer (Bradley Cooper, justly becoming one of the most well known actors of our time) and his inability to cope with something he experienced on duty. There is the story of a teenager (an Oscar-worthy Dane DeHaan, full of unique adolescent angst) and his inability to cope with secrets from his past. There are stories of corruption, failed youth, depraved entitlement, and so on.

The film is directed by Derek Cianfrance, who famously spent more than a decade trying to secure funding for his second feature, the emotionally explosive, impossibly raw, unabashedly intimate Blue Valentine. I’ve always considered Blue Valentine a wildly accurate cinematic representation of love lost. It’s a film that speaks to me through its frankness and intimacy, an intimacy that is embedded in every printed frame and every spoken word of The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance knows how to tell a story, and tell it well. He keeps us intrigued by never revealing more than he has to. He goes where we expect him to go, then immediately darts in a different direction. And he has some help in doing so.

The Place Beyond the Pines is filled with talent at the top of their respective games. As Luke, Gosling does what we’ve come to know him to do. He scowls, he stands still, he smokes, he speaks through a shaky voice, he reacts to situations violently, he adds humor were appropriate, and so on. And, if I’m being honest, Gosling is treading on dangerous ground here. He’s on the cusp of making his character a caricature. But let’s worry about that if it indeed ever happens. For now, we’re presented with yet another performance of impeccable, often still, power.
All of the supporting players (including those mentioned, along with Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, and Emory Cohen) are on point as well, even though I suspect many will take issue with one of them in particular – an angsty youth who, in my mind, represented a perfect personification of inexplicable teenage aggression.

Shot cold and calculatingly by Sean Bobbitt (who lensed Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame) The Place Beyond the Pines looks like perfection, and upon digging deeper, is somehow more. It’s a complicated story of many ideas and themes, one that’s going to get better with time. Soon, we will enter the season in which Hollywood numbs us with popcorntainment – films that seek your money through exhaustive action sequences and nonsensical storytelling. Watch what you will and like what you like, but me, I’ll take the power of The Place Beyond the Pines over that of a superhero any old day. A

24 comments:

  1. I've been wanting to see this since I first heard about back in 2011 when Ryan Gosling was the hottest thing in films. I'm hoping to catch this film this weekend w/ To the Wonder though I know that film has been getting some very mixed reviews as does this one as well.

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    1. Hope you get to see this and To the Wonder soon. Two very good films that have serious staying power.

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  2. I've been anticipating your review since I watched this film. I had feeling you would love it!

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    1. I did indeed! Thanks so much for stopping by and reading.

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  3. I knew based on Blue Valentine that Cianfrance could tell a story, and I love that movie, but if I'm being honest, this film has haunted me in a way that very few have. I agree with your score (I would not call it perfect because of Emory Cohen's "Travolta" performance mainly) and I think it is definitely one of my favs of this year thus far. Also, I would say that this is Cooper at his best (even more than SLP imo) - Gosling is always good for me, and this is the best I've seen Mendes and Liotta in who knows how long.

    Can't wait to see what you think of To The Wonder as well (another film that has continues to live with me days after first seeing it).

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    1. I suspect many are going to have a problem with Cohen's work in the film. And while I'm not trying convince you (or anyone) otherwise, I do just want to say that I knew many young, white, American boys like that growing up. That's what I meant by "failed youth" and a sort of "depraved entitlement." The exaggerated New York accent, the thuggish attitude, the lame strut - it's a type of posturing that is very common among white, American teenagers of privilege. I'm not generalizing, only speaking from what I've personally seen. But anyway, I thought Cohen's work was spot on.

      Totally agree with everything you said. Interesting that this was shot before SLP. I too think Cooper is better here, but I wonder if this, in some strange way, helped prep him for SLP...?

      Everyone was just perfect here. A great film that I'll remember for a long, long time.

      To the Wonder review will be posted Wednesday!

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    2. It wasn't so much the dialog or his performance that made me have a "problem" (which is probably too strong a word for my feeling) with Cohen's performance, and I don't doubt the existence of that sort of person in real life, it was just the look, I didn't buy him as Cooper and Byrne's son.
      Can't wait to read your thoughts on TTW! Keep up the always amazing work man!

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    3. Now I'm definitely with you there: He looked nothing like his on screen parents. Another movie pet peeve I had to suspend long ago!

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  4. Great review! I look forward to this more and more every day.

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  5. Nice review Alex, so glad I made the 40 minute drive to check this one out. My favorite film of the year so far. Nice job avoiding the numerous spoilers in your review. I can see this film getting some serious consideration come awards season.

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    1. You know, I really do appreciate you saying that about the lack of spoilers in my review. I honestly tried as hard as possible to skirt around the surprises within this amazing flick. So thanks for saying that!

      I loved this movie as well - really hoping for ANY Oscar love.

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  6. I can't fault the cast at all since they are all great with each thing that they have to do, but it's the screenplay and the story-structure itself that bothered me. The fact that it was very, very long didn't bother me, as much as it felt like the story was getting more and more unrealistic as it went along. I won't dive into spoilers but what bothered me was the fact that the last act of this flick, was way too-on-the-nose for me to even take seriously. Glad you really liked it, Alex. But for me, I wasn't that in love I have to say. Good review.

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    1. I completely understand where you're coming from here, Dan. (And also, I really do appreciate you not divulging spoilers in your comment.)

      It purposefully sets itself up for a challenging narrative. And when the title card signaled that we were indeed entering the third act, I shuffled in my seat and thought, "Oh boy, here we go." I didn't know if Cianfrance would get it right. For some (like me), he certainly did. For others, not quite. Fair enough.

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  7. The way that you say you have trouble talking about why you liked it (although I think you DID do a good job of talking about why you liked it) is the same way I have trouble talking about why I didn't like it. I didn't completely dislike it - not at all - but I thought the first third of it was far superior to the rest. I thought it had more style, more atmosphere, more je ne sais quoi - almost like Cianfrance was more attached to that character than any of the others.

    I saw what he was going for and in some ways I think he even got there - the plotting all fit together for so much scope - but just not with enough......oomph. Or something.

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    1. I gotcha man. (Props for flexing the French, you suave son of a bitch, you.)

      I think if you asked Cianfrance, he'd admit that the Luke character was the one closest to him. In all the interviews I've read, Pines started with Luke's story. So you may be onto something there.

      And although I don't really view it as which third is good, better, best, the structure of the flick definitely sets itself up for that level of scrutiny. It was a different kind of movie, you know?

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  8. Yay! Seeing this later this week, and I can't wait! Glad you dug it man. Also, Sean Bobbitt shot this? That's awesome!

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    1. Can't wait to hear what you think! Bobbitt crushed it in this movie. Just... wait.

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  9. 2 A's and it's only April. 2013 is looking to be a great year for you.
    -Dan

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    1. Seriously man, it's insane so far. Wondering if others will remember them come end of the year...

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  10. I think Spring Breakers will be loved by a few but will be forgotten/hated by the rest of public. This might be remembered more because of the all star cast but still it's early in the year and their will probably be a ton of other great stuff coming out.

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  11. It finally came to my theater this weekend! I put off reading your review until I wrote my own. Here is mine:

    http://averageisbetter.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-place-beyond-pines.html

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    1. Cool man, I'll give it a read in a bit.

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