2013 has been fairly weak for movies so far. I’d been waiting to see The Place Beyond The Pines since I had heard such good things about it at TIFF last fall. I try not to build up expectations when seeing movies but I couldn’t help but be excited to see a potentially great movie. The Place Beyond The Pines is a crime drama starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ray Liotta and Ben Mendelsohn. The title of the film is the English translation of the Mohawk word for the film’s setting, Schenectady.
Director Derek Cianfrance made Blue Valentine in 2011, a love story with a unique flashback structure. He uses an equally ambitious structure to tell this story. The way he aims to develop themes and build on story lines is audacious and heightens the emotionality but falls annoyingly off target. Forget the typical Hollywood formula for films. Cianfrance aims to push the boundary of telling a story. The film opens with a motorcycle death cage with 3 drivers intersecting each other on a dangerous path. An obvious, but visceral metaphor for the rest of the film.
Goslings’ character Luke is a badass tattooed motorcycle carnie stunt driver. He’s the best character here because of the Brando stoicism Gosling brings with his macho persona hiding sensitivity. Dear lord he’s so cool. Would def consider buying a motorcycle now. Luke is desperate and clueless but Gosling makes his actions feel warranted and out of love for his family.
After Luke finds out he has a son with Eva Mendes’ character Romina, he feels a connection and a responsibility to provide for him. Luke eventually finds himself working with Ben Mendelsohn. Animal Kingdom y’alll! Mendelsohn slyly utters one of the coolest lines I’ve heard in years “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.” Luke turns to robbing banks to provide for his family. The bank robbing scenes are thrilling in their build up and the getaway scenes after proper anxiety inducing. It works because we care. The parts with Gosling are a near perfect film. And then…
Bradley Cooper’s character Avery Cross is a cop who crosses paths with Luke and the story builds a new DNA strand. Avery’s father and wife (Rose Byrne) question his career choice. Avery’s central dilemma is a moral one plucked from Cop films and is a bit conventional for what this film had set up. Ray Liotta plays his typical tough guy and puts the pressure on Avery.
Dane DeHaan as a young teen gives a fine enough performance as well but his story is where the film falters. It’s then a shame that Cianofrance can’t juggle these lofty threads of stories. Sadly, the film’s magic is lost through conventional genre beats and a narrative that isn’t assured in direction. With all of these characters, and this ambitious structure, the film loses focus and can’t quite thematically tie them together through a satisfying narrative.
If I say any more it would spoil plot elements I think are best left as a surprise. I will say that the film is broken down into three distinct parts and unfortunately they slightly digress each time. The first part was brilliant and had the film been as intimate and powerful as this part then I would probably consider this “M” word worthy. The second part has gripping moments but I didn’t find it as compelling or organic as the first portion. Contrivances become an issue even more so in the third ,which has some thoughtful emotional beats, but to put it bluntly, is cringe-y and pretty disappointing. There is one character in the third portion that completely took me out of the movie. A mixture of the performance and dialogue makes it cringeworthy and damn near ruins any emotional thorough line. The ending concludes the film in solid enough fashion so that the first portion isn’t tottaly tarnished by the lesser parts. The central musical theme is used a few times and when paired with beautiful shots it gave me chills.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a film loaded with lofty themes but stuck in a narrative of descending value. I found myself forgetting I was in a movie theater during the first act. Each of the characters here want more than they already have in their lives. None of the lead characters are left one-sided, though some have much better follow through on their arcs. See it for the messy but rich themes dealing with relationships between fathers and sons, legacies, consequences, and moments that change lives forever.
It’s so narratively ambitious that it collapses on itself, but the beginning is so great that it doesn’t leave the film feeling cold. It’s an emotional and admirable mess. Basically a blubbering crying face of a film. Even when it’s bumpy and loses control, it’s compelling and emotionally charged enough that you aren’t disinterested. Definitely worth a watch at some point. If you’re a guy see this film with your dad because that would be the best experience. This is the kind of film that doesn’t get made enough and even with its canyon sized faults, it’s utterly mesmerizing when it works. A crime drama about fathers and sons that reaches it’s lofty ambitions, if only for a few moments.