Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance (2009’s Blue Valentine) is a tough and evocative crime drama with a sprawling multi-thread narrative and the emotional power to mesmerise audiences. It is a film that subverts typical storytelling conventions and this makes it a difficult one to discuss, considering the breadth of its scope and theme. But Cianfrance earns our respect because we can see the director’s bold intentions coming together, and accept the instances of coincidence and fate that seamlessly converge the stories. This bleak character study has its roots in family - the relationships between fathers and sons, the difficult existential crossroads that stem from paternal responsibilities, and the influence of a father’s decisions on the life of his son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is about a directionless man trying his best to take responsibility, and the lengths he is willing to go to honour his role as a father. It is about another man who, blessed with privilege and intelligence, selfishly and selflessly channels a conflict of emotions to change the avenue of his own life. The repercussions of an altercation, and the decisions he makes in its wake, will never rest. Finally, it is about a lonely and confused young man as he seeks to find out who he is and understand the origins of the path that seems to have been set for him.

It is a beautifully intimate film at times and unnervingly tense in others, and even if it stretches the believability a little thin in the slightly weaker (though essential) final act, it remains a fascinating and unpredictable journey. 

Ryan Gosling stars as Luke Glanton, a loner motorcycle stunt driver who works in a dangerous cage act for a travelling circus. While in Schenectady, New York he learns from an attractive woman named Ramona (Eva Mendes) that he has an infant son following an affair a year earlier. But, to foil Luke’s plans of being involved in his son’s life she reveals she has a man in her life, a loyal and supportive guardian to young Josh.

Luke discovers a purpose to his unrewarding life, providing for his son. This he does by the only means possible - supplying cash. He begins working for a mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn), but for an extra rush and some fast dollars, Luke decides to ally with him to rob local banks. Luke's story and his disparate relationship with his son serves as the grounding for the rest of the film, which follows a righteous rookie police officer, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), trying to survive in a tainted precinct, and a pair of misguided teenagers (Dane DeHaan and Emery Cohen) who strike up a volatile friendship.

Sean Bobbitt, whose extraordinary work on Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame brought his skills to the knowledge of cinemagoers, helms the DP duties and his work is exemplary. The flaws in the character's features are not hidden, the exquisite hand-held work is always under control and the sun-drenched woods glisten and appear otherworldly. There some stunning long takes, including a brilliant opening shot and an extended chase sequence from inside of the police vehicle that puts the viewers behind the wheel. Former Faith No More front man Mike Patton provides a powerful score. 

Gosling, who was absent from screens in 2012, returns in form as a degenerate who drifts through life clinging to a limited skill set. Luke, who has bleached blonde hair, sports arm-spanning tattoos and wears dilapidated metal band t-shirts, is a man of few words. But his disappointment in himself and his desperation to be remembered for the right reasons resonate. As strong as Luke’s story is, the two that follow are just as powerful. We begin to see mirrored experiences and unexpected connections between the characters. While Cianfrance weaves tales of desperate crime, professional anxiety and teenage angst, he never loses sight of the complexities of his characters and the bigger ideas. There is a moment where the stories between two of the characters converge that is one of the deftest touches I have seen in a film in a long time.

Both Hollywood hot shots, Gosling and Cooper, are terrific, but the supporting stars; Dehaan (one of the finest young actors in the business at the moment, as evident in Chronicle and his eye catching supporting work in the otherwise ordinary Lawless), Mendes (devastatingly heartbroken), Mendolsohn (playing another slimy criminal, yes, but one with genuine compassion and feeling) and Ray Liotta (unwaveringly shady) are also on their game. Emory Cohen was perhaps the weakest casting, for me. His character, an aggressive teenager who believes he deserves to empower others, just felt like it was overdone a little.

This epic and ambitious storytelling provokes audiences by continuing to evolve a large-scale narrative while incorporating relatable anxieties, emotional conflicts and acts of fate. The tension is palpable, standout sequences linger and the acting is of a high quality. Mark it up as two for two for one of the most promising filmmakers in the industry in Derek Cianfrance.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2


  1. So glad you liked this one - it worked for me on every level. Cohen's performance seems to be getting a lot of flak, and I get that. I actually thought he did a superb job playing a lost, falsely macho teenager. If you listen to his voice when Bradley Cooper approaches him in the interrogation room, Cohen's ridiculous "thug" accent is gone. I thought that was a very telling moment. His whole tough persona is a scam.

    I knew quite a few teenagers like that.

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