Friday, April 12, 2013

Love: The Place Beyond the Pines

I've heard that James Franco's assessment of  The Place Beyond the Pines begins with an appreciation of Ryan Gosling that borders on the homoerotic.  What does not make sense to me, of course, is not that Franco's essay exists, but that there are writings on Derek Cianfrance's film that do not make it their business to focus, however obsessively, on Gosling's presence.  We open, after all, on a shot of Handsome Luke's abs and progress, from there, through a cinematic fun fair of effortless, curious, hyper-masculinity. The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie about fathers and sons unlike any I have seen before, a grave meditative triptych in which the only mistake may be introducing a bleached-out Gosling too soon, and obscuring him in later chapters.  Cianfrance directed Gosling previously in the beautiful Blue Valentine, and here he is wise enough to channel the magnetism that the actor brought to his role in Drive.  If it sounds like I'm just another Gosling fan girl, I'd beg to differ. In the opening sequences, Gosling is objectified by Cianfrance's camera, transformed once again into a silent, dangerous thing that dares you to cross it and demands you fix your gaze upon strange sections of its painted surface.  As Luke, he is a sort of stomped upon angel, a scuzzy, trashed-up daredevil who grapples, like the Driver, with good intentions and his very particular set of skills.
In barely legible, bolt-fractured type, HEART THROB stretches across Luke's clavicle, wrapped around his neck in a way that reads ironically and, yes, like an unbearable burden.  Luke, or Gosling, is strangled by his objecthood, laid bare by the camera and, relentlessly, chased through the film.  Luke is the first character we come to know, and the film's first moral quandary.  The Place Beyond the Pines is engaged in a long history of real, American drama. It's a ponderous film, oddly paced and interested in outsiders, isolated spaces, and struggles against nature.  There's something of the claustrophobic western to it, an inverted version of the battles waged in Monument Valley, where the sins of fathers leave bloody tracks along the paths of their sons.  Our outlaw is the wandering Luke, a motocross carnie who rides into Schenectady only to encounter a girl he once left behind, a diner waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes).  Romina has given birth to a son, Luke's son, and though she does not want him to be involved (or perhaps even to know), Luke wants to provide for his boy.  He is interested, we quickly learn, in giving his son a stable home using whatever means necessary.
As it tends to in films, the whatever it takes quickly leads towards a life of crime. Luke robs banks, and eventually, this bankrobbing leads to a relay-style hand-off of the film's narrative limelight to a man on the other side of the law, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a do-gooder cop with a son the same age.  If Cooper already proved that he's a capable dramatic actor with Silver Linings Playbook, his role here confirms that that was no mere fluke. Where Gosling works in part because he's got a silent swagger to rival Steve McQueen, Cooper has the impossible job of trying to steal the story from an electrifying presence.  That's a tough, tough job, and to his credit, the guy does an admirable job making Avery into a wholly dimensional, struggling lawman. Without spoiling anything, allow me to simply say that the encounter between Luke and Avery is memorable, and it is one that trickles down to impact, in alarmingly complicated ways, the pre-destined paths of their boys in adolescence, where Cianfrance switches focus once again (to Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan).
Yes, The Place Beyond the Pines is, sneakily, sort of three films all at once.  This accounts for its lengthy run time, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, is what's great about the film even as it's what's absolutely terrible about it.  Cianfrance is taking very real structural risks throughout, here, and though the film is looped, bridged, and tied together into one very neat, clean narrative package, it's tough not to acknowledge that the second half of the film drags in ways that the Luke sequences do not.  We move from a quick burning crime story, a world with guns, motorbikes, chase sequences, and creeping darkness, to the stories that follow the inevitable happily never after. Cianfrance's problem, of course, is that crime pays too well when pitted against real human drama. As savory as the storytelling is in the later sequences (though sometimes melodramatic), it can't compare to the rush of those earlier, Suicide-scored rides.  Of course, a too good beginning is far from the worst problem a film can have, and all things considered, The Place Beyond the Pines has the makings of a very strong, lasting piece of American cinema.  Cianfrance strikes a curious balance between the film's sprawling formal ambitions and its very personal, very intimate nature. We get to know the characters not merely through dialogue and action, but via landscapes, lingering shots, and the film's hauntingly atmospheric score. We switch vantages, we change stories, we move across decades, but we always, always, come back to the same split seconds.  

6 comments:

  1. Very well-written review. Good job!

    I'm also a fan of this film, particularly Gosling's performance and the cinematography. T

    The diviseness of the reactions have been very interesting to read. I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that Gosling's section is so awesome that to some, the film faltered after that.

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    1. I tend to agree. It's a tough act to follow!

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  2. Excellent review. I saw this flick over the weekend and it has yet to hint at escaping my mind. I love how you commented on the structural risks it took - I couldn't agree more with you there. Risky indeed, but it all worked for me. Loved it.

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    1. Definitely impressed, looking forward to seeing what a second viewing does for the narrative.

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  3. A very nice review here! I'm pretty much in agreement with everything you said as well which is nice :)
    I thought that this was at times and extremely brave film, it threatened to disconnect from the audience at several points. Most obviously I suppose when the focus shifts towards Cooper.

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, we're definitely in agreement there, Cianfrance really risks the audience's connection with the material. I clearly found it productive, will have to check out your write-up!

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