Monday, April 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by:  Derek Cianfrance.
Written by: Derek Cianfrance and Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Luke), Bradley Cooper (Avery), Eva Mendes (Romina), Dane DeHaan (Jason), Emory Cohen (AJ), Ben Mendelsohn (Robin), Ray Liotta (Deluca), Rose Byrne (Jennifer), Mahershala Ali (Kofi), Harris Yulin (Al Cross), Gabe Fazio (Scott), Robert Clohessy (Chief Weirzbowski), Bruce Greenwood (Bill Killcullen).

If you’re read any reviews of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, you have more than likely read one of film critics favorite words – “flawed”. You will have also heard another critics favorite “overlong” – although the film is only two hours and twenty minutes, so that’s hardly an epic running time, and makes me think that some critics, like the rest of society, have fallen victim to an ever shrinking attention span. I say this not to criticize other critics – they are certainly right on the first count – The Place Beyond the Pines is flawed. And yet, it’s major flaw is that Cianfrance is overly ambitious. In telling this story of two families – one on either side of the law – three sets of fathers-and-sons, spanning more than a decade, Cianfrance has certainly bitten off a little more than he can chew. Unlike the nearly perfect Blue Valentine (2010), Cianfrance’s previous film, Cianfrance is painting on a large canvas this time. True, The Place Beyond the Pines is “flawed”. But I’ll take a flawed film like this that tries to do so much, and succeeds at doing most of it, over a safer less ambitious, less flawed film.

The story opens in the late 1990s, with Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman travelling with a roving carnival, coming to a town he hasn’t been to in a year. On the fairgrounds, he runs into Romina (Eva Mendes), who he knew a year ago, but hasn’t contacted since. She seems to be holding something back – and when Luke goes over to her house, he discovers what this is. Apparently, Luke now has an infant son. Not wanting to be his own father, who he never knew, Luke quits his job to stay in town and help raise his son, Jason. But Luke has no real skills beyond riding his motorcycle. And Romina has a new man in her life – Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who is more responsible than Luke. So while Romina is drawn to Luke, she knows it’s not wise to bet on him. Becoming increasingly desperate to prove her can provide for his son, and Romina, Luke is talked into robbing a bank by his only friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, adding another great sleaze ball to his ever expanding lineup). If Luke stopped to think for a minute, he would realize that by robbing banks, he is not proving himself able to provide for his family – but simply confirming Romina’s – and his own - worst fears about him. Luke may well turn out to be just what he doesn’t want – his father.

The movie will eventually switch focus to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the son of a former judge (Harris Yulin), with his own infant son, AJ. Avery went to law school, but instead of becoming a lawyer, decides instead to become a cop. He becomes a hero because of a shootout that leaves him wounded, and soon discovers that the department in which he works in is corrupt. But no one seems all that interested in what he wants to do. By doing the right thing, he may well be sealing his fate in becoming precisely what he didn’t want to be – his father.

The third part of the movie takes place 15 years later – in 2012 – and focuses not on either of these men, but on their two sons - Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), like their fathers before them, struggle with the legacy left to them. Unlike them however, it may not be too late to change what they will become – although the final shots of both them imply that perhaps it is.

The son paying for the sins of his father is one of the oldest themes in storytelling – it pretty much dates back to the beginning of time. But just because a theme is old, doesn’t mean it isn’t still worth exploring, which Cianfrance does very well in The Place Beyond the Pines. Essentially, what he does is tell the twin stories of Luke and Avery – both are men trying hard to do the right thing, to not be the father that their father was to them, and both of them end up failing. They are their father’s sons, even if they do not want to be. And in Jason and AJ, we see the pattern starting to repeat itself yet again. Poor Jason doesn’t seem to realize that if he wasn’t so obsessed with biology, that he does in fact have a pretty great father figure in Kofi – who unlike the other fathers in the movie, is there for his kids – and who treats Jason as if he was his own son, which he is, in all ways except biological.

The first segment of the film – the one dealing with Luke – was my favorite of the trio. Gosling is one of the best actors working right now, and you cannot take your eyes off of him, even when he appears to be doing nothing. Some critics have complained that here he is essentially repeating his role from Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant Drive – but other than the fact that both men are really good at driving (one a car, the other a motorcycle) the characters couldn’t be more different. In Drive, Gosling is a man so in love that he is willing to become whatever Carey Mulligan’s character needs him to be – which changes throughout the movie. If we never really get to know who his character in Drive really is, that’s by design – he essentially plays one role after another. In The Place Beyond the Pines, he is a man who is trying to take responsibility for his own life for the first time – and all because of his new son. But he has no idea, really, what being a responsible parent means – it’s more than just money.

The second segment, with Cooper, is perhaps a little too conventional – we have seen stories of police corruption before, where one man tries to move beyond the corruption he is surrounded by, and has no one listen to him. But even then, the film takes an interesting turn as this segment comes to end. Avery undoubtedly does the right thing – but perhaps for the wrong reasons – and as such, he’s just as lost to his son as Luke is to his. Cooper is great in this part – as good as he’s ever been really – as he slowly goes from idealist to cynic.

The final segment is the most problematic – in part because it’s a little too convenient to have these two teenage boys meet each other by chance, in part because the movie takes some storytelling shortcuts that don’t make much sense, but are necessary for the plot, and in part because Jason’s actions are a little too farfetched to be believed. It is then to Dane DeHaan’s credit that he keeps this segment afloat – and makes us believe in Jason. DeHaan has a great career ahead of him – already adding another interesting performance to a resume that includes a wonderful one in last year’s Chronicle, and a memorable cameo in Lincoln. While Emory Cohen may not have quite the role that DeHaan does, he is great at playing a spoiled, rich white kid adopting African American culture as his own – without realizing how ridiculous it makes him look.
So yes, The Place Beyond the Pines is a “flawed” film – it slowly but surely bites off more than it can chew. Perhaps a less ambitious film – one that didn’t try to jam so much into its running time – would have made for a deeper and more effective film. But what we do have in The Place Beyond the Pines is pretty great in its own right – too ambitious to be sure, but I prefer that to a film that takes no chances whatsoever. And perhaps on DVD, where running time is less of a concern; they’ll even be a director’s cut that could turn out to be even better, because while many critics have complained that the film is too long, I think it’s too short. A more expansive running time may have allowed the characters more of a chance to breathe. But while The Place Beyond the Pines may not be the masterpiece that Blue Valentine was, it does confirm Cianfrance as an ambitious director – certainly one to watch for in the future.

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