Well here it is, the first film of 2013 that I was really anticipating. I had been following The Place Beyond the Pines for some time, due to the considerable amount of pedigree surrounding the project. I was really impressed by Derek Cianfrance’s last feature Blue Valentine, and I was overjoyed when I heard that he would be re-casting Ryan Gosling (potentially my favorite working actor) for this project. The early reviews remarked on how epic the film felt in that it’s storyline spanned generations, and it also happened to be a crime film, which is my go-to genre for film. All of this was enough to have me readily follow the movie until it’s release, and then I was fortunate enough to catch an advanced preview screening of this film at BAM this week. I can now say that The Place Beyond the Pines is a better-than-average drama that occasionally feels rather unique and profound. Thing is, I really wanted it to be a great modern crime film, and it’s not quite that.
The Place Beyond the Pines is set in Schenectady, New York, and begins its ambitious storyline during the mid 1990s. The first third of the movie focuses almost entirely on Ryan Gosling’s character, Luke Glanton, a tattooed metal head who makes a living as a motorcyclist performer at carnivals. When Glanton discovers that an old flame of his, Romina (Eva Mendes), has giving birth to his child since last they met, he immediately decides to quit his job, reside in Schenectady, and try and support his child. Unfortunately, Romina has moved on and has a new man in her life now. Still, Glanton is determined to provide for his child, and starts to rob banks in order to get money. His actions eventually cross paths with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and carries out into the lives of all the film’s characters for years to come.
To say anymore about the film’s plot would be giving away too much (I already fear that this review will do just that), but let’s just say this film has enough story to fill at least three movies. Showing ambition towards a project is never a bad thing, but it certainly can be tricky to master. Derek Cianfrance says that he and his co-writer Ben Coccio went through several dozen drafts of the film’s script, and then had an arduous task of cutting it to a reasonable length(the original cut was reportedly about three and a half hours). It’s hard to fault the film for overreaching, as it carries a timeless theme about fathers-and-sons, and suggests how important it is that they both have one another in life. At its best, the film feels quite resounding, but there are a few crucial elements that seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.
For one, the film is very clearly broken up into three sections, all three of which feel a bit different from each other. After getting off to a rousing start in the film’s first third, it actually mellows out a bit for the second part. This part of the film focuses on Bradley Cooper character’s life as a police officer, and while it isn’t uninteresting, the character doesn’t hold the screen like the electrifying Gosling did in the film’s first third. It slows down the film’s momentum a bit, and I feel that a more consistent state of tension was intended by the film makers. The film’s final part is a bit more interesting than the second (at least it was for me), but it focuses on two new characters (played by Dane DeHaan and Harris Yulin) that don’t quite get the character development they need in order to really resonate with the audience. There’s also a sense of repetition in this final act, and many of the film’s secondary characters (played by actors such as Rose Bryne, Ben Mendehlsohn, and even Ray Liotta) come off as a bit underused. It all adds up to an ending that some might find poetic, but others might decry as predictable.
So yeah, The Place Beyond the Pines has a flimsy arc, but that shouldn’t keep you from seeing it. Derek Cianfrance is clearly on his way to being seen as an A-list director, and he gives this film the same sense of grit and humanism that made Blue Valentine such a stellar indie picture. The film has a very natural feel to it, and he finds ways to shoot visceral action/chase sequences without coming off as stylized. His empathy for his characters is so observant, and it’s best communicated through Gosling’s performance. Once again, the formidable actor has added a great deal of weight to this picture through his acting ability. His character says relatively little throughout his limited screen time, but his expressions and mannerisms make us find sympathy in this brutish loner. The first act of The Place Beyond the Pines does indeed shine the brightest, and mainly because it’s the section that focuses on Luke the most, and it has the best action set pieces.
It’s decidedly a flawed film, but the film making, ambition, and performances are enough to make me kindheartedly recommend it. Over the last few weeks I’ve heard a few people say that they feel the movie looks like a Drive clone. Those expecting Drive will be particularly disappointed as it’s no where near as stylized or original as Nicholas Winding Refn’s masterpice. I also find it a shallow comparison, as besides minute surface details, I didn’t think the movie looked anything like Drive in the previews. Regardless, The Place Beyond the Pines should appeal to most audiences, and it raises my hopes as to what Cianfrance will do next.