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The Place Beyond the Pines (Cianfrance, 2013)


     What is the cost of doing whatever it takes to protect and honor your family?  This is the primary question at the heart of The Place Beyond the Pines, the latest film from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance.  Like Blue Valentine, the film makes the most of Ryan Gosling, whose very presence as The Loner With Wide Staring Eyes has carried many of his recent films.  Gosling stars as Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman working for local state fairs.  When he learns that his former fling Romina (Eva Mendes) has had his baby, he quits his job and promises her he’ll do whatever it takes to provide for them.  This is the point of action that sends all the dominoes falling, not just for them but for another family altogether.

     The film is split up into three distinct segments, each focusing on a separate character.  This is a particularly inspired choice by  Cianfrance and fellow screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.  It is a basic three-act structure trick but it isn’t seen that much in mainstream cinema, surprisingly enough.  The first segment is devoted to Gosling and it’s easily the best third of the film.  His charisma naturally elevates every scene he’s in, particularly with Mendes.  There is a dangerously compelling quality to his character Luke; we root for him to be able to take care of Romina and their child despite the criminal acts he’s willing to perform in the process.  It is in the quiet, reflective moments of the three together that the film really shines.  Especially of note is the scene where they take a photo together.  Romina is committed to another relationship but you get a sense of unity, of everyone being exactly where they belong.  It is this comfortable stasis that provides enough of an emotional investment to genuinely care about the fates of these doomed characters.

courtesy of Atsushi Nishijima

     The second segment of the film is given over to Bradley Cooper’s character Avery Cross, an up-and-coming cop who gets involved in the lives of Luke and Romina.  We find that he is married and, like Luke, has a young son he cares deeply about.  Where the two diverge is in Avery’s hellbent ambition for a position of power within the police department.  His thirst for power is equal parts naive and off-putting, and makes him especially unlikable in comparison.  Where the film succeeds is in switching the traditional perception of cop and criminal, the former being unequivocally “good” and the latter being irredeemably “bad”.  Both characters are complex, which really shouldn’t be an accomplishment for a film in this age but it’s astonishing how few mainstream movies of this type are able to pull off morally ambiguous lead characters.  Having said that, near the end the film ironically begins to sell us on the idea that Luke = good and Avery = bad in a way that makes them inversely two-dimensional.  With his recently Oscar-nominated role in Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper has definitely proven himself to be able to handle dramatic material but I wasn’t compelled by his performance in this.  I don’t know if the film’s script prevented him from really chewing into the material he was given or if he didn’t feel the need to create a complex character, but he felt rather lifeless at many points in his segment.  At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, it’s hard to compete with the natural expressiveness of Gosling’s face but Cooper’s performance left me rather cold and emotionless.  It is because of this that the second segment feels less interesting than the first, but it still serves to further the sprawling nature of the plot that leads into the final segment.

     I won’t spoil the third segment for obvious reasons, but I can genuinely say that I was surprised by some of the choices made by Cianfrance and the screenwriters.  Despite some positive elements, it is undoubtedly the film’s clunkiest third, sacrificing interesting character work for predictable plot devices.  It is the longest segment but it also has the unfortunate distinction of being the least compelling, despite featuring some excellent work from rising star Dane DeHaan.  What can be said, however, is that the level of care and effort put in from the production team is very apparent.  It is clear from the runtime and the span of the film that they were intent on making an epic family saga and in many ways they do succeed.  There is a definite Shakespearean influence, but it does not use the rivaling families trope used so often in movies and television.  Instead, these families really have no idea how intertwined (and similar) their lives truly are; if they were to step back and look at the pure poetry of their actions it would be surreal to them.  Adding to this poetry is the beautiful cinematography by Sean Bobbitt.  The city of Schenectady is captured so vividly with its winding roads, run-down apartments and eponymous pine trees, allowing the city to become a character of its own.  This is made even more beautiful by the score, composed by Mike Patton.  The piano theme repeated throughout the film creates a powerful sense of connection between these stories that only adds to the grand feel. 

     Cianfrance and company set out to create a beautiful, artistic piece of cinema but something happened in the process that made it fall a little short for me.  There is an epic Greek tragedy hidden somewhere in these 140 minutes, but I don’t think the film’s execution fully lives up to its own ambition.

Grade: B
MVP: Ryan Gosling

Awards Potential: 
Sean Bobbitt for Cinematography
Mike Patton for Original Score


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