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Gosling steals hearts on screen
The Place Beyond the Pines is a tricky movie to review because it’s actually a movie that’s better experienced than explained. It’s about a group of characters whose lives are hopelessly intertwined, yet to say precisely how would ruin certain aspects of the film at hand. It spans around 20 years, with certain characters dropping out and others becoming more or less prominent depending on where we are in the story. Probably the best thing to compare it to structurally is something like 2004’s Oscar-winning Crash or TV’s “Lost,” only with a strictly linear plot.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll do my best to give you some idea of what it’s about, at least to a point. Basically, it’s three separate-but-connected stories strung together. In the first, we have an 80’s-era tale of a carnival performer, Luke (Ryan Gosling), who comes into Schenectady, New York, once a year in a traveling carnival. Though the movie’s title has another meaning as well—which is sort of a metaphor that I can’t get into without ruining certain things—one of its derivatives is that city’s name, which loosely translates into The Place Beyond the Pines.
While there, Luke once had a one-night-stand with a girl named Romina (Eva Mendes), which, unbeknownst to him, resulted in a pregnancy. When he visits her the following year, she’s a bit cagey, but when he comes to visit the next year, her mother tells him that he has a son, Jason, that he didn’t know about. Wanting to provide for the child and be involved with his life, Luke quits his job and gets a job helping a local mechanic, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who talks him into holding up a series of banks to help provide for his kid, and things proceed from there.
In the second story, we follow a newbie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose path crosses with Luke as he continues to pursue the wrong side of the law. A good cop in a bad system, he runs afoul of corruption in the police department that lead him to want to do something about it, but afraid for the repercussions that it might bring him and his family, including wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and his own baby son.
Finally, we have the story of two teenagers that befriend one another and bond over their lone wolf status. One is a new kid in town by the name of AJ (Emory Cohen) and the other is a drug-addled misfit (Dane DeHaan), and both are trouble waiting to happen. Each story has its own issues to contend with and in each, we get a sense of foreboding that things are not only not going to end well, but that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where some of these plot developments are going, to be sure, but a lot of the entertainment value of the film is the way it circles back around to include elements of the other stories, eventually tying them all together in a unique way. As it’s one of the most compelling elements of the film—if not the most compelling—I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say, it’s a neat bit of storytelling.
In many ways this film gets right what a somewhat similar film from last year, Killing Me Softly (coincidentally, also with the aforementioned Mendelsohn) didn’t quite: the effects that one’s personal economic state can have on different people’s lives in different strata of society. In other words, how poor people’s action can affect the rich and vice versa, and how life isn’t always fare to those less fortunate- or those who are, for that matter.
As with that film, The Place Beyond the Pines is a slow-burn of a film. If you’re expecting a lot of action, you’re going to be disappointed, but unlike Softly, this film is wise enough to have sold itself as more of a character study than a gritty crime drama. That element of the story is more of the backdrop around which the rest of the story—the real story, as it turns out—pivots on, not the point of the film.
The cast is great across the board, with Gosling doing a variation on his similar role in Drive, only a bit more fleshed-out than in that film. Cooper does much more subtle work here than he did in the superlative Silver Linings Playbook, for which he received his first Oscar nod, but it’s effective nonetheless. The attention-grabbers are undeniably Cohen (currently in a thankless role on NBC’s “Smash”) and DeHaan (the underrated Lawless), who two actors worth keeping an eye on in the future.
The film is beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt, who did similarly gritty work with 2011’s Shame. As a longtime fan of singer/songwriter Mike Patton, late of the bands Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, among others, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine work he did with the brooding score, which suits the film perfectly. Between this and the excellent work Patton did for Crank 2, he has the wherewithal to be the next Mark Mothersbaugh or Danny Elfman (both veterans themselves of beloved cult bands), and I do not say that lightly, as I have the greatest respect for them both.
Kudos as well for the fine job by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, who also did the excellent Blue Valentine with Gosling previously. Working from a triptych-style script written with Ben Coccio (The Beginner) and documentarian Darius Marder (Loot), the film never feels disjointed and disconnected, despite the unconventional nature of the story, what with certain characters drifting in and out of the story as it goes along.
Granted, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, as the story is inherently gloomy and the film takes its sweet time telling it, clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. It’s a very low-key somber piece, and never even tries to be flashy or overtly stylish. It’s more of what people think of when they think of a low-budget independent film/character study, but in a good way. The best of ways, in fact.
It’s actually nice to see a film like this get a decent release in theaters, even though it’s been crawling across the states for well over a month now, with a platform release that’s slower than molasses. The film may try some people’s patience, but it’s worth the effort for those of us who don’t mind a story that takes its time getting where it needs to go.