A film review by Craig J. Koban April 16, 2013

RANK: #1

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES jjjj
 

2013, R, 142 mins.

 

Ryan Gosling: Luke /  Eva Mendes: Romina /  Ben Mendelsohn: Robin / Bradley Cooper: Avery / Ray Liotta: Deluca / Mahershala Ali: Kofi / Bruce Greenwood: Bill / Ray Liotta: DeLuca / Rose Byrne: Jennifer 

Directed by Derek Cianfrance / Written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder

From its bravura opening steady cam tracking shot to its final hauntingly melancholic image – both of which feature anxiety-plagued souls on motorcycles - THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES cements 38-year-old writer/director Derek Cianfrance as a powerful new filmmaker in American cinema.

His previous film, the engrossing and authentically rendered family drama BLUE VALENTINE (which I placed high on my Top Ten Films of 2010 list) marked the arrival of a kind of director that just does not seem in abundance anymore: one that absconds away from Hollywood formulas and contrivances and instead intrepidly forges ahead by taking great creative risks and gambles.  Now, with THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, Cianfrance unequivocally proves that he’s the real deal among the directorial elite. 

His new film is a sprawling, multi-generational family saga that, oddly enough, reminded me considerably of THE GODFATHER saga for how both chronicle how the sins of fathers unavoidably will crash down upon the heads of unsuspecting sons.  THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is arguably even grander as far as single film narratives go, as it tells three highly unique storylines – told over a period of nearly two decades – and how the first taps into the second and, in turn, how the second taps into the third.  Cianfrance explored relationship woes between husbands, wives, and their children in BLUE VALENTINE, but here he expands his focus to see how highly questionable decisions made by one generation have a dreadful snowball effect to subsequent ones.  There is an element of Greek tragedy in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES in the way that it shows paternal figures striving to accommodate for the American Dream for their offspring, only later to see how those choices later conflict with their own morality. 

In a bold opening that Martin Scorsese would admire, Cianfrance begins the film in a long, smooth and audaciously realized dolly shot as we see motorcycle circus daredevil Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling, re-teaming with Cianfrance after BLUE VALENTINE) prep in his trailer, leave it, and then take a long walk through the crowded circus grounds all the way to his motorcycle and then finally into a large circular steel cage that he and three other riders perform loop-de-loops in.  Showy?  Yes.  Yet, this introduction to the film serves to reinforce that this is going to be one of unqualified purpose and scope.   

 

 

Luke lives a life of friendless solitude and relative poverty.  He’s trash.  He discovers early in the film that he fathered a child during a fling with a Schenectady, NY waitress named Romina (a never more raw and authentic Eva Mendes).  Luke had a troubled upbringing, so he understands the value of being in his newly discovered child’s life, but he is not financially – and perhaps emotionally – up to the task of supporting him.  Plus, Romina is living with her boyfriend, which complicates matters.  Luke tries to set himself up with a job as a lowly mechanic, but his boss (the creepily effective chameleon, Ben Mendelsohn), begins to teach Luke the craft of bank robbery, seeing as Luke’s bike riding talent would prove to be valuable in such capers.   

The second storyline that is told alongside and then after Luke’s: Rookie officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, getting finer and more natural with every new performance) once had ambitions to go to law school, but later realized that being a cop was his calling.  He also, like Luke, has a wife and newborn child, although his relationship to them maintains a normalcy that Luke pines for.  Fatefully, Luke and Avery’s paths do indeed cross during one of the former’s bank robbery attempts, which culminates in a decision made by one that will change both of their lives.  Afterwards, Avery is then given a reality check when he is forced to deal with police corruption within his own department and the subsequent dicey choices he makes in the name of seeking justice. 

Too many critics, to be blunt, have gone into too much detail regarding the third act of the film, which I will not do, only to say that Cianfrance makes some refreshingly unexpected choices.  With a stark title card that hits you in the stomach (“15 Years Later”), the narrative flashforwards to the lives of Luke and Avery’s children and how they come to learn about and accept their father’s past decisions.  Some have complained about how manipulative and overly telegraphed this section of the film is, but, to the contrary, I think it adds a whole new intoxicating layer of compelling interest in the story that reinforces the film’s themes of a father’s dark legacy and how past indiscretions find their way to the present.  THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES almost becomes a tale of twisted and perverted destiny run afoul by this point.   

Just as he proved with BLUE VALENTINE, Cianfrance is really adept at crafting lived-in performances from his leads that help ground his films in a gritty verisimilitude.  The two key performances by Gosling and Cooper – showing two starkly different men at polar opposites of the morality scale that both make bad choices in life – reiterate Cianfrance’s determination to not have clean-cut heroes or villains in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, just shades of grey personas that try to eek their way through life.   Gosling – with his bleach blond locks, multiple body tattoos, ripped physique, and 80’s styled biker wardrobe – is a physical freak of nature, but, as always, the actor is a master of creating a performance of dialed-in and introverted rage and disillusionment.  Cooper may have the trickier role, as he begins the film as a proverbial straight laced lawman and then has to deal with not only his life-altering run-in with Luke, but also with his own unethical behavior that he later engages in to take down the corrupt cops and get himself ahead in life.  These two Oscar worthy performances both highlight how these two different men – one on the side of the law and the other a hopeless society fringe figure – have the shared experience of making compromises in life that will hurt others around them. 

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a long and patient film (nearly two and a half hours), but it never feels methodically drawn out or self-indulgently tedious because we are so mesmerized and drawn into the intimately cursed world of these deeply flawed individuals and tracing Luke and Avery’s missteps into the future.  The beguilingly sad musical cords of Mike Patton and the cold and oppressively grungy cinematography by Sean Bobbit gives the film a dreamlike aura of ever-escalating menace and dread, further complimenting the almost operatic tone of the piece.  Very few films such as this do such a superlative job of aesthetically inviting you in for the ride only to make you feel restless and uneasy while on its journey.

The real star of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, though, is Cianfrance, who paints on his cinematic canvas as so very few do right now.  The masterful dichotomy of the film is how all encompassing and large it is in terms of its scale and focus while remaining quietly introverted in gracefully exploring the nuance of human frailty and shared misery.  Best of all is that Cianfrance takes calculated chances that would alarm other filmmakers, which helps elevate him – and his films – far above the types of dime-a-dozen throwaway genre efforts we have seen countless times before.  I’m pretty confident that I will not see a finer film in all of 2013 than THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, or, at the very least, I wont see another that has this film’s unbridled narrative and thematic ambition that’s helmed with so much limitless confidence and creative vision.     

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