Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek's Cianfrance's debut, Blue Valentine, blew my freaking mind. A searing, uncommonly intimate portrait of a young marriage alternately blossoming to life and crumbling away that performed beautifully on every level. It was a heart-, nay gut-wrenching powerhouse indie. To stop me going on about it any longer, you can go here to read my Blue Valentine Review.

Cianfrance's second film as writer and director, The Place Beyond the Pines, is a slower, more measured exercise; a great sophomore effort that shows Cianfrance is not interested in repeating himself, but in letting his stories guide him through the maze of human relationships.

In Pines, Cianfrance and his two co-writers Ben Coccio & Darius Marder, are interested in father-son relationships and the defining presence they have on the lives of men; how deeply the fact of being a father, or a son, fulfillingly or not, impacts how we shape our identities.

Pines is not as intense or swooning a film as Valentine. It's a more ambiguously contemplative slow-burner, boldly presented in three divergent but narratively & thematically connected chapters. On the surface a crime thriller (or three crime thrillers), but really a multi-generational, multi-protagonist (always a difficult trick to pull off) character study.

Chapter 1:

The strongest of the three and the one that feels most likely to succeed as its own full-length film. It's almost a pity when Pines moves on from it, but everything that follows gives it a different resonance & weight of context. In a way, it lingers far longer in the memory precisely because Cianfrance abandons it so soon.

This chapter follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a heavily tattooed hipster/stuntman who seems to exist purely to smoke broodily on the edges of society & look ridiculously cool doing dangerous stuff on a motorcycle. A spark is awakened, though, when he learns that a former fling Romina (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his son & he sets out to be an involved father & breadwinner - even if it means robbing banks (spectacularly, with motorbike getaways) & luring Romina away from her stable family life with a new boyfriend. 

You can't deny the guy his passion and dedication to being a present father, even if his presence is destabilizing. When Luke says that that he wants his son to know him - because he didn't know his father & look how he turned out - it comes off massively poignant rather than trite. Surely Fatherly love of such conviction counts for something, even if the father in question is less than stable? Well, that's the question. 

This segment of the film has everything going for it. Cianfrance writes a great character for Gosling and Gosling, when given great characters, is naturally dynamite. He plays Luke all coiled rage and beautiful intentions. He doesn't say much but he has a helluva lot more to do than look cool (there's a lesson here for Nicolas Winding Refn). This is a great character with a great trajectory, and Cianfrance gives him some great scenes - from 
crying in a church to racking up the tension as he passive aggresively puts together a baby cot in Romina & Kofi's house (uninvited) to his final moments on screen, he is electric. Gosling & Mendes also have great onscreen chemistry - Mendes, with this and last year's Holy Motors, is starting to make a legitimate case for being taken seriously. Starting.

DOP Sean Bobbitt also does some of his best lensing here, milking some gorgeous shots from both Luke's theme park workplace & his time spent on motorcycles. He also creates a gentle, melancholy intimacy for Gosling & Mendes' sad-awkward-beautiful family portrait. I should also mention that Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic as Luke's odd/unpredictable/white trash employer/friend/crime mentor.

Chapter 2:

The story moves on to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a nervous-seeming cop who becomes a hero, and alienates his family as he wrestles with his conscience, after he kills a perp in the line of duty, in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's all less angsty than it sounds because a) Bradley Cooper is good, but not yet as good at inner turmoil as he is at loud, cutesy bi-polarism and b) Avery is kind of a passive character who seems to feel bad about a lot of things but not do much about them. When he does take action, you can't help but question his motives.

Which brings us to the next part of the story, which introduces Ray Liotta as Deluca, a tough, sinister corrupt cop leading a band of similarly tough, corrupt cops who tries to draw Avery into his circle of extortion. Moral dilemmas ensue. Ray Liotta is great, of course. Rose Byrne is also around, as Avery's longsuffering wife but, while she has some good moments, her presence feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

This part of the film is odd, but not in a bad way, simply because it takes the narrative in such a different direction and seems to change the tone so sharply. As a character, Avery is hard to read or warm up to and, though there is a clear sense of chaos brewing, it is hard to tell quite how it is going and how it will all tie together.

Chapter 3
AJ (Emory Cohen) is a teenager sent to live with his father in Schenectady to help him stabilise after he gets in trouble over drugs. His father, however, is distracted by his campaign to be elected New York City General and a son with drug-related misdemeanors is less than convenient. The father in question is Avery Cross.

At his new school, AJ befriends broody loner Jason (Dane Dehaan) and, sensing a shared void, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Jason is a sensitive kid, ready to boil over under the surface, while AJ is a jock of sorts, hiding his frailty under a layer of douchiness. What neither boy knows is that Luke is Jason's father and their stories are inextricably linked.   

Both young actors are excellent (although Dehaan is the broody standout) and the writers must be commended for writing such vivid teenagers: complex beasts negotiating posturing and insecurities they don't yet fully understand. Far from the jocks and nerds trope usually presented as high school standards, they are authentic, unsure adolescents trying to find their way into adulthood and sensing that they may be looking for the same things.

This part of the film works and really drives things home because Cianfrance takes it slow and gives it plenty of time to breathe. Things rise to a slow, broody conclusion that simmers out into the film's thematic inclinations. 

In the end it all comes together as a slow burner that was always intended to be an enigmatic thinkpiece rather than a straight drama or thriller. Cianfrance is more interested in the legacy of fathers and sons, the choices - even bad ones - that produce life and belonging, and the ones that leave a void.

Each of the characters is somehow marked by the choices of those who went before them; Luke never knew his father while Avery is always living in the shadow of his. Both AJ and Jason, in turn, continue to live out shadows of the secret crimes, compromises & sacrifices of their fathers, without even knowing it. It is simply imprinted on their spiritual DNA.

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