The Place Beyond The Pines

April 30, 2013


Derek Cianfrance’s previous film – and the only of his I have seen – was Blue Valentine, a somewhat inelegant but certainly affecting (really trying to avoid “raw” here) two-hander about the blossoming and breakdown of a relationship.  What it lacked in visual interest (grainy, handheld, American Indie by-the-numbers) it made up for with pacing and, of course, performances.  That picture worked through incredible acting, and it had to, as there wasn’t much else to rely on.  It was an exercise in reactions, movement, and glances.  It was a picture of big emotions because of its small proportions.  His follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, takes a different tack, although one suspects he was hoping to work within the same emotional model.  It’s a sprawling, 140-minute saga, with a triptych structure that unfortunately makes it feel like it is going on for a lot longer than it’s already lengthy running time.  It’s a shame he couldn’t have learned a lesson from his last film, then, and realized that Big Emotions don’t necessarily need a Big Story. 

Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorbike stunt driver at a traveling fair, finds out a fling he had a year before with Ro (Eva Mendes) has produced a son, and he decides to do “the right thing” and quit his job and stay in Schenectady, New York to try to help out.  She’s moved on and doesn’t really expect him to, but gives him enough reason to stay.  Determined to make some money, he falls into bank robbery.  Then there’s Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a law degree from a prestigious family who suddenly finds himself labeled a “hero” for something he doesn’t feel terribly heroic about.  Soon enough he’s caught up in shadowy department dealings, and all of a sudden we’re flung into a cop drama where someone actually uses the word “rat” as a verb.  Then, there are two teenage boys, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen).  Jason is a somewhat sensitive “loner stoner”, and AJ is a douchebag of immeasurable douchiness.  They have a story too, and it all connects though not as obliquely as I’ve written here.  The narrative is incredibly straightforward, much to its detriment.

Despite the running time, Cianfrance doesn’t have the time (or the interest) in giving us anything particularly interesting or new in its constituent parts.  A problem with these sort-of omnibus films is that because each section is shorter than a feature length, filmmakers feel they can shortchange the audience on fresh ideas.  Each story is well-trodden territory, and though the Luke section is easily the best, it’s also the first, giving us a steady descent into diminishing returns.  The film is largely about fathers and sons, and yet there’s very little about being a father and only a tiny bit about being a “son”, and the latter is only presented in a somewhat abstract form given that the son never knew the father.  Perhaps because of this thematic rumination, Cianfrance thought it was fine to shortchange us on the female characters.  I’m not suggesting that a filmmaker shouldn’t focus on what he or she wants to focus on, but even if the two women in this film (Eva Mendes’s Ro and Avery’s wife Jennifer, played by Rose Byrne) aren’t central they still need to be actual characters.  Jennifer has a smaller role, but she’s either concerned wife or bitchy ex-wife.  Ro should be hugely important, but all we get is shrieking grief or dizzying love or just general uncertainty.  It’s a huge letdown after what he did with Michelle Williams’ character in Blue Valentine, and considering even Ro’s boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali) is given the opportunity to have more personality than her, it’s absolutely shameful.

On the plus side, Cianfrance has wisely shifted away from the extreme handheld of his previous effort.  It’s often beautiful, with effective use of following shots, warranted shakiness, gliding overheads, and a genuinely well-done chase sequence.  The cast does what they can, and even Bradley Cooper acquits himself fairly well, even if he does end up in his standard smug-mode.  Ryan Gosling is particularly good, radiating earnest incompetence throughout, and really coming alive as a hysteric amateur during the robbery scenes.  There’s also Mike Patton’s wonderful score, which unfortunately only works with the film in two or three sequences.  The rest of the time it’s glowering and doom-laden, as though to remind us all we’re watching some sort of cosmic tragedy, when really it called for the sweeping strings that a hokey melodrama deserves.

The final scene with Jason is very pretty.  Shot with a slightly brighter, autumnal palette, it suggests reflection and optimism.  Then a Bon Iver song comes crashing in and the whole thing is ruined.  The artist is apt, perhaps, as Bon Iver trades in this kind of hokum.  He occasionally has a truly wonderful song that’s beautiful and affecting, but mostly it’s tedious tripe saturated with self-importance.  The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t much different, and Cianfrance has found himself making that critical mistake of thinking he can compensate for shallow notions by just having more of them.


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