The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

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Folded memoriesKyleLikeNewDerek Cianfrance may turn out to be one of those strange great directors whose movies always end up one step shy of greatness. I haven't seen his first film, Brother Tied, but with The Place Beyond the Pines, he shows yet again (as with 2010's Blue Valentine) that he is a director with a vision so complete and uncompromising that the part of him functioning more broadly as a storyteller sometimes takes a back seat to formal and aesthetic touches. Make no mistake, I admired The Place Beyond the Pines greatly — its confidence impressed me more than most movies I've seen recently — but it unfolds with the pacing and structure of a long novel, and sometimes Cianfrance forgets to pause and let us feel something a bit more deeply as an audience. In novels, the reader controls the pace at which things unfold; in a movie, we need a moment here and there to let things sink in.

The story is straightforward enough, told in three distinct acts. Act 1 introduces Luke, a motorcycle daredevil that travels with a carnival and performs the kinds of logic-defying stunts you'd see in a Mad Max movie. Ryan Gosling plays Luke with a much more effective variation on his recent less-is-better style — he seems like a man driven not by any inherent needs or emotions, but by a flawed understanding of traditional gender roles and responsibilities. When he discovers that a past fling from, literally, the last time the circus was in town — Romina, played by a surprisingly good Eva Mendes — became pregnant after he left and is now raising his infant son, he quits his job under the assumption that she and the boy will move in with him and they will be a family. After all, this is what fathers are supposed to do.

All here to go, so to speak.

Sometimes the next generation is doomed to stay in the shadows of their parents.

About a third of the way through the movie, a series of crimes Luke commits in an effort to provide for his son and Romina bring him into violent and sudden conflict with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a local police officer. Cross becomes a hero following this event, even though our view of his actions is more complicated than the one he presents to the public, and this struggle with his own sometimes fluid morality makes up the second act of the film. The third act takes up roughly the last half hour, and jumps with confidence many years down the road to give us a view of the two men's sons.

Either of these two characters' stories would have provided plenty of material for a full film. Gosling plays Luke as a man desperate to provide for his family, more than anything because this new view of himself as a Father, and Husband, and primary breadwinner has given definition to his life that was previously lacking. When Romina tells him that she lives with her boyfriend and is happy raising her son there, Luke calmly and matter-of-factly responds that she will move in with him, and that the boyfriend will find his own family. Later, when it has become clear that Romina has no intention of moving in with Luke, he still clings desperately to the chance to provide for his son. His last lines in the movie are heartbreaking, ugly as he is as a character, in the way they reveal a horrible realization about his role in his own child's life.

And Cooper delivers the strongest performance in the movie (and, by far, his career), as someone forced to confront that in his own view of himself he has inflated his nobility and motives. Eventually, we see him trying to do what's right as a way of making up for his past mistakes, all the while passing the consequences of his guilt down to his own son — and there is enough complexity in how he juggles these two impulses to delve far more deeply into Avery as a character.

Bradley Cooper adds another excellent performance to a steadily growing collection of great works.

Bradley Cooper adds another excellent performance to a steadily growing collection of great works.

But The Place Beyond the Pines is about the nature of family connections more than the specific people making those connections, and here lies its inherent flaw. In a novel, three acts like these could span hundreds of pages, plenty of time for an author to establish rich histories for every character. The film, even at just short of 2 ½ hours, is almost slavishly devoted to plot — Cianfrance is such a talented director that he infuses enough emotional and moral weight into every scene to keep us from feeling like we're simply seeing connected events unfold, but we still never really get a chance to just watch the characters live.

That said, the decision to segment Gosling and Cooper's stories into individual, separate chunks of time on-screen was wise in that it leaves strong lingering impressions of the two men. We don't entirely feel like we know them, but we have a sense of their motives and their values — and the importance of this becomes clear in the last act, as we watch their sons grapple with the roles of the fathers on their lives. The sons' attempts to understand each man mirror the experience of the film up to this point, and the effect is the right mix of touching and frustrating. These are the characters we empathize with the most, because seeing the actions of the fathers gives us context for the failings and misjudgments of the sons.

Cianfrance is operating with a lot of material here, and there is no solid through-line from beginning to end other than how these characters' actions eventually dictate the direction of another's life. One of the great successes of the ending is that even though it unconventionally abandons the Gosling and Cooper characters, the final scenes could not occur without them. Through Luke's son, for example, we gain a fuller understanding of how Luke may have become who he is in the first scenes, and in the last shot the movie finally stops to let you appreciate that.

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Tail - The Place Beyond the PinesThe Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Directed by Derek Cianfrance.
Screenplay written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Bradley Cooper.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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