Review: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
Writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a riveting and compelling drama that shows us why he is one of the most innovative, ambitious, and gifted new directors in all of filmmaking. This wisely crafted epic is a gripping portrayal of the unbreakable bond between fathers and sons that approaches heights of Shakespearean artistry wrapped in the weight of a Greek tragedy.
The film is beautifully photographed in the town of Schenectady, NY – “Schenectady” is derived loosely from a Mohawk word for “the place beyond the plain pines” – where we are taken from dirt paths of the dense forest to the back roads of the suburbs. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brings the viewer up close with shaky handheld cameras and makes great use of color and texture during wide shots of a single motorcycle drifting down an empty road. The grainy lens in much of Pines, accompanied by Mike Patton’s beautiful score, is nothing short of beautiful.
The very first scene sets the tone. Carnival rides and attractions buzz and ding while Ryan Gosling’s Luke – a stunt motorcycle driver in the traveling circus – anxiously paces in his trailer while impressively opening and closing a butterfly knife. We’re up close and personal with Luke’s toned six-pack and muscled back as he continues to pace. The viewer’s eyes roll across his body to get a glimpse of his tattooed torso that suggest his outlaw status and troubled past.
Luke unfolds the butterfly knife and sticks it into the wall of his trailer. He picks up his shirt and jacket and continues out into the carnival – still shirtless. He slips on a grungy Metallica shirt – the cut off sleeves leave his inked-up arms exposed as the camera follows the back of his blonde head in a continuous over-the-shoulder shot. He struts while smoking a cigarette as he journeys past the flashing lights of carnival attractions and approaches a circus tent. We hear the MC over the speakers – “Luke, and the Heartthrobs!”
The camera still hasn’t cut away from Luke, who jumps on his bike next to two other riders and puts on his helmet. The three riders pull into the metal sphere located in the middle of the tent where they ride in loops at dangerous speeds, weaving in and out of one another. This shot is put together with seamless precision – showing us just how skilled the lead character is.
The plot is rich and multi-layered. Laid out in three extensive chapters, the film’s unique structure is certainly ambitious as it tries to unfold its broad character arcs. The first chapter focuses on Luke (Gosling) – the stunt cyclist who learns that a fling from a year ago, Romina (Eva Mendes), had given birth to his son. Luke is determined to make right and find a way to support his infant son and start a family with Romina. Gosling and Mendes have palpable chemistry on screen.
The second chapter introduces us to ambitious rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) who becomes a local hero, struggling with ongoing corruption in the police force. The third chapter explores family legacy and the lasting reverberations of the sins of the fathers by introducing us to Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) – I won’t say more about how each chapter is connected because that would just give away the plot. Each character arc has a profound connection to the next.
Ryan gosling’s electricity commands the screen as the outlaw who is searching to do some right with his life. Luke befriends local auto mechanic, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who offers Luke a low-paying job at his shop. Influenced by past experiences with the absence of his father, Luke is determined to make a good life for his son, Jason. Luke’s ability to maneuver on a motorcycle is second to none, which eventually leads to Robin’s suggestion that Luke should use that skill to rob banks in order to raise money to support his son. “Not since Hall and Oates has there been such a team.”
Prone to outbursts of anger and emotion, Luke robs the banks with feverish speed in dizzying sequences that make your palms sweat wondering if he’ll get away. Dressed in all black with a motorcycle helmet completed with cheap sunglasses, you can feel the emotion pouring from his voice as he screams and points his gun, and you can feel the tension as he speeds away from the scene, weaving in and out of traffic. Seldom has Ryan Gosling been this good.
In an inevitable twist, Luke and Avery’s lives intersect in a wonderful high-speed chase resulting in a change of narrative focus.
Cooper, fresh off of an Academy Award nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, brings that same intensity to Avery. Avery is an honest rookie cop with an Ivy League education who grew up under the pressure of his mega-successful father. After being injured in the line of duty, Avery becomes a local hero – eventually exposing him to corruption within the police department. In an attempt to expose the culprits, Avery works his way to Assistant D.A. with extortion and blackmail. Avery’s ambition lands him increasingly further away from his wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and infant son, AJ. Each character – Avery and Luke – affect each other’s lives in different ways.
We fast forward 15 years later, as Avery’s actions within the police department and as Assistant D.A. land him running for office as New York Attorney General. Avery, driven by guilt and shame can’t help but hold on to past failures in his search for redemption. Avery sinks himself into his insecurities and his secrets that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The film’s third act introduces us to two high school classmates – Luke’s son, Jason, and Avery’s son, AJ. Each of the two grew up in different households with different problems while their paths intertwine with drugs and alcohol, leading them to be both friends and enemies as they face their fateful, shared legacy. DeHaan shines as he delivers a quiet, but powerful performance as an alienated teen, while Cohen does just fine as the privileged street thug who grew up in a broken home.
The third act is the film’s biggest stretch, but I love what it’s trying to attempt. It’s here where Cianfrance explores the sins of the fathers and the decisions that ripple like water after a stone’s throw into a lake. These themes are used with an incredible degree of sensitivity as the story unfolds organically over 15 cinematic years with events that are connected by subtle, but crucial moments. Pines is an emotional roller coaster that always keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering where it will go next until it brings us to its heart wrenching conclusion.
The most compelling section is the Gosling section. That’s not to slight the rest of the film, because it’s great. It’s just that Gosling’s tenacity as Luke is something that I could watch on repeat. The viewer suffers as Luke suffers. We sit in our seats and wonder what lengths we would go to in order to provide for our families. We empathize with Luke as the bad guy – but in many ways he’s a good guy. Gosling’s portrayal of Luke is a beautiful symphony always threatening to build to its crescendo. “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”
The Place Beyond the Pines is uniquely structured as a triptych that unfolds like an extensive and somewhat exhausting novel. This dramatic portrayal of fathers and sons journeys through family legacy and generations past – showing crucial decisions with sweeping aftereffects. The story is intimate and its characters are compelling as Ryan Gosling’s electricity commands the screen. Its ambitions grant the film its immense power, and at its best, The Place Beyond the Pines is beautiful and bold filmmaking.
Posted on April 12, 2013, in Reviews and tagged Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Derek Cianfrance, Emory Cohen, Eva Mendes, Film, Movies, Reviews, Rose Byrne, Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond The Pines. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.