While I’ll shy far away from bestowing greatness on Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, I will say that, so far, it’s lingered in my mind like no other film this year, including both Chan-wook Park’s Stoker and Danny Boyle’s Trance, two films that — in many respects — are nearly perfect exercises in filmmaking. Unlike those movies, Cianfrance’s film is messy and unwieldy. But it’s filled with such ambition that it’s imposssible to ignore. In his novel, 2666, Roberto Bolano wrote on the topic of grand, ungainly books that he described as “great, imperfect, torrential works…that blaze paths into the unknown.” That’s what this is in film terms. In a world where cinematic mediocrity is the norm, the very fact that Cianfrance has the fervor to shoot for this kind of greatness is remarkable in itself. And while he eventually falls short we still get a movie with a gentle humanity and a quiet cumulative power that demands attention simply for never being afraid to fail.
Cianfrance is aiming to create a grand dramatic epic that’s almost literary in nature — like an adaptation of some proverbial Great American novel. The film is broken up into three distinct acts; the first follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a trashy, quick-tempered, tattooed dirt-bike stunt rider who rides motorcycles for a traveling carnival. During a stop in Schenectady (the name of which means “beyond the pines” in the Mohawk language), he runs into Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he had a fling with a year before, and eventually discovers she’s given birth to his son whom he didn’t know existed. Having grown up without a father himself, Luke wants to avoid that experience befalling his own son and decides to stick around. But with no money, no prospects and no means of supporting Romina and Jason, he starts robbing banks with the help of his auto mechanic employer and out-of-nowhere benefactor, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly). The film is little more than a crime drama until we get to its second part involving Avery (Bradley Cooper), the Schenectady cop from a rich background who brings down Luke. Avery is generally noble, but when he makes choices (that are sometimes mistakes), they put him at odds with other officers. These decisions even endanger his way of life.
The first two parts of The Place Beyond the Pines are developed with heart and humanity, detailing the two very different men. One comes from poverty, the other from affluence, one is a criminal, the other searches for justice. But both are inevitably ruled by their mistakes. Their actions come from the best of intentions, but both men are endangered by their ignorance and understandable feelings of love, guilt and hubris. Cianfrance’s greatest strength lies in making the characters realistic through their fragility. The ultimate price of their foibles and failings — Luke’s crimes and consequences he faces for them, and the ramifications of Avery’s decisions — play out 15 years later in their sons Jason (Dane DeHaan, Lawless) and AJ (TV actor Emory Cohen), whose stories make up the final act. Unfortunately, many of The Place Beyond the Pines’ problems sprout up in this final part, as it pushes the runtime — creeping up to 140 minutes — into the realm of overlong, and occasionally melodramatic. Additionally, the character of AJ — whose faults lie in a mean-spirited and ugly worldview — doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the film (or with his father).
Despite the feeling I had during the entire third section’s seemingly superfluous nature, I now realize it is essential. Cianfrance’s most emotionally resonant scenes occur when Jason attempts to learn about the father he never knew. These scenes are executed in small touches with a welcomely deft hand. Jason’s encounter with his father’s old partner in crime, Robin, reveals a man who, years later, hides his guilt and reverence — or maybe even secret love — for Luke. The small moment when Jason finds an old photograph in an unlikely place — and what its discovery conveys — makes up for much clumsiness elsewhere in the way it illuminates the past. That these occasions are buried inside the film’s most glaring missteps is at first disappointing, and then fascinating, as you realize the shrewd way the movie’s emotional impact has overtaken you. By being both wide in scope and intimate in its concerns, The Place Beyond the Pines is a film that deserves your attention in spite of its faults. Rated R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre