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From the DVD Shelf: The Place Beyond the Pines

I didn’t see director Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film, Blue Valentine, though I certainly read about it when it came out.  (The film got a lot of acclaim, and also a lot of ink due to its NC-17 rating.)  It’s a film I am interested in seeing one of these days, but for whatever reason it’s never been too high on my list, always bumped in favor of other films I choose to see instead.  However, Mr. Cianfrance’s follow-up film that was released earlier this year, The Place Beyond the Pines, immediately struck me as a film I wanted to make it my business to see.  Sometimes it’s obvious why I want to see a film or don’t want to see one, but with this, I’m not entirely sure what grabbed me about it.  Until I saw it a few weeks ago, I never really knew much of anything about what the film was about.  I was intrigued by the top-shelf cast, which includes Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, Harris Yulin (such an indelible part of my childhood from his role in Ghostbusters II),  Mahershala Ali (who I loved in The 4400 and who was also great in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button),  Bruce Greenwood (JFK!  Captain Pike!), Rose Byrne, and Dane DeHaan (so memorable in Chronicle).  I also think I was intrigued by the tone of what looked like a tense little character study/ crime story… and for sure I was grabbed by the mysterious title.

I am glad to have seen The Place Beyond the Pines, because the film really blew me away.  It was not at all the movie I thought it would be.  Usually that spells disappointment, but in this case The Place Beyond the Pines wound up being a far more epic, far more thoughtful film than I’d thought it would be.  The film is dour, and wrenching to watch.  This isn’t a very crowd-pleasing film — I can see why it barely made a blip at the box office.  I loved it, and I am not sure it’s a film I ever necessarily want to see again!  But I am delighted to have seen it and extraordinarily impressed by the work of everyone involved.

The film begins by introducing us to Luke (Ryan Gosling).  The first several minutes of the film are a phenomenally well-crafted introduction to the character.  At first, all we see of him is a well-muscled, tattooed torso, flipping a knife open and shut at rapid speed.  Then we follow him from the back of his head as he walks out of his room (or trailer, hard to tell) and through a crowd at a carnival, eventually turning into a tent and hopping on a bike, which he proceeds to ride into a cicrcular steel cage with two other riders, where they undertake an incredibly dangerous motorcycle stunt.  It’s a magnificent, eye-catching introduction to the character, a bravura piece of filmmaking that all seems to have been done in one take.  As we follow Luke through the next few scenes, it is clear that this young man is trouble.  He’s a punk — not really an asshole, but a tough, lost kid.  He discovers that a girl he hooked up with, Romina (Eva Mendes), had a baby — his baby — and he tries to do what in his head is the right thing: he quits his job stunt-driving for the carnival so that he can stay in town and be in Romina and her son’s life.  Except that Romina has moved on and is living with another man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali).  Thinking that he needs money to support Romina and her son, and to push Kofi out of the picture, Luke gets involved in a scheme to rob banks.  Twenty minutes into the movie and you can see the downward spiral that lays ahead, all too clear.

Except then, about 45-50 minutes into the film, after a bank-robbery gone wrong, Luke’s life intersects with that of young cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and suddenly the movie I thought I was watching becomes an entirely different movie.  It turns out that The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t just Luke’s story.  The film is actually a trilogy of stories, presented one after the other, that explore the ripple effects of tragedy and a variety of different father-son relationships, focusing in the final third of the film on two boys (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) whose fathers are absent altogether.

I had no idea the film would be structured this way, and so I was quite taken by surprise by the film’s narrative twists and turns.  The structure of the film feels to me more like that of a novel than your typical motion picture.  That’s both a strength and a weakness of the film.  I applaud the originality of the structure, and I was impressed by how much deeper the film went than I had expected, by presenting us with three separate (albeit very connected — both thematically and because of connections between the characters in all three stories) stories, each of which dig, in a different way, into the issues that Mr. Cianfrance — working from a script he co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder — wanted to explore.  It’s a weakness because even though I really enjoyed the film, I have to admit my attention began to wane a bit in the latter half.  It’s hard to stay engaged when one feels like the story is starting over from zero three separate times (even though it really isn’t, because the stories are connected).  Additionally, the film is so filled with tragedy and unhappiness that it does get a little hard to watch after a while.  At 140 minutes, the film isn’t colossally long, but it is long.  And it feels long.

The film gets its wonderfully enigmatic title from the meaning of the name of the city Schenectady, where the film is set.  Boy, this movie doesn’t make me want to visit there any time soon!

The movie is exceedingly well-directed.  I was impressed by Mr. Cianfrance’s beautiful shots, and also by the melancholy mood he was able to create across many different locations and characters within Schenectady.  This is a city and a story that feels infused with sadness, and the way Mr. Cianfrance is able to draw that out from every frame of the film — while also keeping an eye for the occasional moments of beauty — is mesmerizing.

The whole cast is terrific.  Ryan Gosling, as always, is magnetic, an incredibly tense, live-wire presence on screen.  He plays Luke as a tightly coiled spring — I found myself watching every scene from the edge of my seat, just waiting for the moment when that spring would finally get sprung.  After just seeing him put in a similarly intense performance as another tightly-wound tough guy in Drive (click here for my review), I am particularly impressed by his magnetic energy on-screen.  Bradley Cooper play a very different type of character.  When we first meet him he seems like a good, smart kid who’s had a good life.  But we can see the cracks in Avery Cross almost immediately, and I love the quiet desperation Mr. Cooper brings to the role, as the waters of trouble start creeping up towards Avery’s neck.  In the final segment, both the two boys are phenomenal.  Dane DeHaan’s performance in Chronicle was a star-making, stand up and take notice performance (click here for my review), and he plays another deeply troubled youngster here as Jason.  It’s a similar role to what he played in Chronicle, but Mr. DeHaan is so good, both empathetic and scary, that it is hard to complain!  I don’t believe I have ever before seen the work of Emory Cohen, who plays AJ, but he was very impressive here.  AJ is just as troubled a boy, only where Jason is withdrawn and sullen, AJ is loud and party-loving.  You know that no good will come from these two boys crossing paths, but I was surely engaged by the film to see what would happen.

The Place Beyond the Pines is an intimate character study and a sweeping, generational saga, all at the same time.  I can’t at all say that it’s a fun movie to watch, but boy it is an impressive achievement.   This is a serious, adult movie.  The film doesn’t let the audience off the hook by throwing in comedy or any characters that are all that happy and fun.  From the opening scene you are right there with these characters, living their lives and seeing how hard it is for any of them to escape the ripples of tragedy that encircle them.  It’s wrenching, but damn impressive.  As I wrote above, this is certainly not a film I’ll be rushing out to watch a second time any item soon, but I am delighted to have seen it.

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