Release: Friday, March 29, 2013 (limited)
It’s been years since we have been handed a package as complete as Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Beautiful cinematography, intense acting and a sprawling, morally exhausting plot come together to form the definitive crime drama that quite easily could pave the way for the rest of Gosling and Cooper’s career alike — and I’d be more than okay with that.
To get the elephant out of the room as quick as possible — I’ll go ahead and concur with many reviewers and say this is an early contender for Best Picture of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines is a spectacularly well put-together piece of art, not just because Ryan Gosling continues to bolster his rough-around-the-edges persona as of late (in my opinion, he truly one-ups his performance in Drive here), but because the trichotomous story structure allows for so much growth and change to occur such that we experience entire lifetimes unfolding on film, rather than mere snippets of life that a vast majority of films, to their credit, choose to focus in on for their duration.
Indeed, what we get is a grandiose tale that explores the nature of father-son relationships and the often devastating consequences of either piece of the family puzzle going missing.
Gosling is once again playing the strong, silent type — but to degrees none of us really will ever be able to comprehend. He’s Luke Glanton, a talented stunt biker with all kinds of tattoos that at once distinguish his personality. When he discovers one day that he has a child, he leaves his job as a traveling performer in an attempt to be in his child’s life. The waters are further muddied because the girl he’s conceived the child with is living with a man named Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) who is more than adamant that he be considered the child’s father. Remaining determined that he will not be completely shoved out of Romina’s (Eva Mendes) and the kid’s life, Luke meets a back country car mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn) who instills in him the notion that he can still provide for his family……if he starts robbing banks.
Luke’s story arc — that is to say, the first third of the film — is arguably the darkest and most vulnerable psychological state Cianfrance visits throughout the two-plus-hour affair. If it’s not either of those things, then it clearly establishes the film’s tone and style and foreshadows a lot more unpleasantness to come. His character is deeply troubled and the circumstances surrounding it are not so much conventional as they are physical manifestations of despair, even abandonment and isolation. The film is brilliant in this regard: its consistent placement of characters in places that substantiate the notion that one is a product of one’s own environment. In this case, most of the characters we encounter are going to be tragic.
As tensions in Luke’s life begin to escalate, we are seamlessly whisked into the story of another: that of Brad Cooper’s Avery Cross, whose immediate appearance is that of a dignified, well-respected officer within a corrupt Schenectady precinct. Exactly how Gosling and Cooper become entangled I can’t say unless you don’t mind spoilers, but suffice it to say that when they do meet it’s but one example of how well the stories flow into one another; of how necessary the extensive length of the narrative really is. Had these transitions been handled differently, or gone any other way other than how they work in Cianfrance’s follow-up to 2010’s Blue Valentine, perhaps the narrative would have seemed excessive or self-obsessed. But it doesn’t. Everything has purpose, everything has its own place, it’s own right to exist within the gray-and-green world of this place beyond the pines.
Cooper’s role as the policeman provides a different perspective on the father-son relationship, as well as sets up the final third act of the film, which takes place some fifteen years on after Avery Cross is first introduced. By this point, we have become invested enough in the individual worlds of the characters that this considerable shift in time is anything but a distracting, contrived plot device. In fulfilling what the film is endeavoring to reveal concerning fate and consequence, we transition into the turbulent lives of youths Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), the respective offspring of our two main protagonists (Luke and Avery).
Even if this third and final segment possesses elements that harken to the pathos of those “Above the Influence” anti-drug campaigns, and therefore seems less than original, these sentiments are no less compelling or befitting of this rather bleak picture. Both teens are archetypes of the troubled youth whose lives are mired in anger, drugs and a lack of personal identity. They come to symbolize the very actions and non-actions taken by those that have come before them, simultaneously comprising a storyline that is interesting in and of itself.
However, the main pride and joy of Cianfrance’s masterpiece is surely the combined efforts of Gosling and Cooper. Both actors are on their A-game and are never less than compelling to watch. Eva Mendes puts on an impressive and distinguished performance as well, diverting from her far-too-easily typecast role as the original Fast and the Furious babe. As Romina, Mendes certainly can’t escape her own attractiveness but her emotional fragility more than overwhelms and makes her character rich and dramatic, aiding the story of both Luke and Avery. And of course there’s Ray Liotta, the reliably gruff, crooked cop, Deluca. Ben Mendelsohn, as small a part as he’s provided here, rounds out a very talented cast as a wayward but still likable auto mechanic, Robin.
Taken as a whole, the experience of Beyond the Pines is something epic and unique. The story unfolds and keeps unfolding until the very last shot — a gorgeous one at that, with another brilliantly placed motorcycle ride out in the hillsides of eastern New York State. (If you check this out, you’ll see why it’s so brilliant.) Maybe you’ll also feel the running time, but only because you’ll also be feeling that you’ve journeyed through each one of the characters’ lives and shared their pain. It’s not always a pleasant ride, but it’s thoroughly engaging. It also rewards your patience with a very satisfying conclusion that’s neither overstated nor predictable.
Recommendation: I believe this film to be the first film of 2013 that is an absolute must-see. An unforgettable experience, no matter if you come away with a profound impression or feeling so-so about it.
Running Time: 140 mins.
Quoted: “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”
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