Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

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Directed by – Derek Cianfrance
Written by – Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio & Darius Marder
Starring – Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Mahershala Ali, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Dane DeHaan & Emory Cohen

In a complete volte-face from the narrow intimacy of his previous effort, Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place beyond the Pines is a classic, cinematic triptych. Split into three distinct sections, all of which are brought together in an ambitious and unapologetically messy ending, it is a film that spans generations, telling a story that takes place over the course of a fraught and rocky fifteen year period. With its fatalist sensibilities and its “sins of the Fathers” inspired story, it is the very definition of a modern American tragedy and one that, despite the occasional dip, is wonderfully accomplished.

It’s tough to discuss the story of the film without giving too much away, but the basic premise is thus; a motorcycle stuntman – Luke (Gosling; Drive, The Ides of March) – is passing through the small town of Altamont, New York, with a state fair when he is reunited with an old fling, Romina (Mendes; Holy Motors, Training Day). Discovering that Romina has given birth to his child, Luke sticks around and vows to provide for his family by whatever means necessary. His desire to help drives him to a life of crime as a bank robber, which eventually leads him into the path of Avery Cross (Cooper; Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), a cop who is about to become embroiled in a bitter battle against corruption within his own department. The crossing of these two paths results in an event which fifteen years later comes back to haunt the children of both men.

For me, this is epic drama at its absolute best. It is a film that is unashamedly driven by its story, and though this sometimes results in some poor characterisation (the female characters are very loosely sketched) it is so refreshing to see a film that is completely focussed on its narrative. Throughout its 140 minute runtime, the film maintains a powerful, doom-laden atmosphere that constantly pushes the audience in the direction of a harsh but inevitable conclusion. Cianfrance views his characters and their situation through a prism of fatalism, with each strand of the story laying the foundation for a final act that can only end one way. Yet, despite this, the film is never predictable and it has a jarring quality that helps intensify the drama and grant it, in spite of its grand narrative shifts that seem to come from nowhere, a stark and unrelenting realism.

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This is a film rich in the imagery of a post-masculine society, in which men fight to establish themselves and their worth. For all of the importance of the narrative, the film is perhaps most successful as a triple character study. The first two acts explore the differences – and, more crucially, the similarities – between Luke and Avery, while the final act looks at how the actions of the previous generations affects the next by focussing on Luke’s son, Jason (DeHaan; Chronicle, Kill Your Darlings), in his teenage years. In each section, we see men who wish to provide for and defend their family. Luke turns to crime because he is unable to raise an honest living, yet it’s never in the name of personal gain. Avery, by contrast, fights crime and corruption to ensure the safety of his wife and his son, while Jason grows up to defend the man who did everything he could to provide for him when he was a baby. All three of them follow very different paths, yet they ultimately want the same thing.

It is with this in mind that the film blossoms into much more than a simple crime drama. The Place beyond the Pines gives us a bunch of complex characters that represent the shallow, corruptible nature of man and the chasm that separates each generation. The film explores the notion that we are all driven by basic desires, and that even the best of us can become lost when circumstance conspires against us. It tells us that there’s no escape from the past, no matter how much we wish to bury it, and captures the undeniable notion that we’re all shaped by events that are largely out of our control anyway. There’s something of the Greek tragedy to the film, though it’s far from just metaphorical cinema. For all of its faults it revels in its desire to tell a proper story, however sweepingly it wishes to do so.

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If you struggle to accept the unconventional style of story-telling, which I admit can feel a tad contrived, then you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that the incredible performances mean that The Place beyond the Pines is still more than worth a watch, particularly as they help to paper over some of the more problematic cracks in the tale. Gosling has never been better and though he’s now in serious danger of being typecast as the distant, brooding anti-hero but if he plays the role like he does here than long may such casting decisions continue. Luke is the feint through which the audience can become invested in the drama. He is the everyman who wants to provide for those he loves, no matter what the cost, and Gosling captures that side of him perfectly.

However, for me, it is Cooper and DeHaan who steal the show. Cooper has worked damn hard in recent years to prove, despite what his turn in The Hangover might suggest, that he’s a great actor and I think it’s safe to assume that his performance here won’t have done that quest any harm. He captures the subtle shifts in his character’s persona between acts two and three effortlessly, and he proves that he has an emotional range far greater than anything we’ve seen from him previously. DeHaan, similarly, continues to impress (he’s the best part of every film I’ve seen him in thus far) with a performance that is deeply engrossing. DeHaan grants Jason a real fragility; the character appears constantly out of his depth, as though he is driven purely by instinct and crude emotions, yet at the same time he appears peculiarly grounded. He is a complex, mysterious figure that we’re never quite comfortable being around, and that is largely down to DeHaan’s phenomenal performance.

The Place beyond the Pines is the epitome of excellent film-making. It isn’t perfect, but its damn close and one will have a pretty tough time faulting its grand ambition. It’s a film that is multi-faceted without becoming stodgy and one that manages to tell a tale that spans the generations in a thoroughly entertaining way. Believe the hype, this truly is one of the best films of 2013.