Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

There's a lot of brooding in The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 film Blue Valentine.  There's much more than brooding however, as the angst-ridden, alpha-male melodrama unwinds and twists and turns.  There's a sense from the very beginning that Cianfrance's scope is large and looming, that there's a stake for the mythic in the somber staging of a film about fathers and sons and cops and robbers.  That sense starts at the opening shot.  It's of a ripped tatted torso belonging to star and Blue Valentine alum Ryan Gosling, himself no stranger to mythic archetypes of damaged anti-heroic men (or of showing off his physique, which at this point must surely be insured for a handsome sum.)  The camera moves out and the establishing shot and nearly bravura opening sequence showcases Gosling nearly already as something of a legend.  Cianfrance employs an artful, if a tad indulgent, opening tracking shot that follows Gosling-- here playing a mythic figure in his own right as a carnival stunt motorcycle driver with the moniker Handsome Luke-- as he enters the whirly motorcycle cage with two other stunt drivers.  And off he goes, spinning in circles, entrapped in a steely prism of danger and dread with the mere glint of exhilaration at its ridge, not unlike the movie that surrounds him. 

The openings speaks volumes for the film itself and also about its filmmaker-- it's hard for to severely judge a film with such ambition, and a certain nobility that comes along with it, but the film as a whole unfortunately can't quite measure up to the sum of its parts and that reckless ambition swerves The Place Beyond the Pines into heady, heavy-handed and downright cold terrain.  Whether sculpted by the cinematic ego of its helmer or not, the film becomes unwieldy as it chugs along its nearly two and a half hour running time.  Perhaps he bought a little much into the praise he received for Blue Valentine, a not completely dissimilar tonal companion piece, one that infolding as the degeneration of a marriage that often felt like, "the degeneration of a marriage."  The difference was that there was a spark and jolt of spontaneous electricity that ignited throughout the flash-forward/flash-back narrative.  It felt as though it was an invitation, a fly on the wall tracking of a pure love gone rotten.  The Place Beyond the Pines (its title derived from what the Iroquois tribe referred to as Schenectady, New York, where the film is set) is at once stubbornly straight-forward, but also hard and cold in its exactness.

But first the good news.  The opening is nearly intoxicating as it converges both Gosling the movie star and grand actor in a singularly absorbing way.  Outfitted with bleach blonde hair and cut-off Metalica shirts, his Luke is a lost boy relic of the sorts James Dean and Marlon Brando played generations ago.  The brooding glint of his stare registers pain, toughness, but also an approachable innocence.  Not unlike what he contributed to Drive a mere two years back, Gosling inhabits a place in the cinematic perception of masculinity, one that's more penetrating the less we know about his circumstance.  A vagabond joy rider who seeks his thrills trapped in his cage of doom, he's nonetheless a believable romantic.  Early on, he reconnects with Romina (Eva Mendes), a past conquest who informs Luke that the last time he came in town produced a baby boy, now a year old.  Conflicted as to what to do, as to whether stick around and try to provide for his son and his mother, or hit the road as per usual, Luke broods.

He finds lodging and a friend of sorts in a slimy mechanic played by Ben Mendelsohn (excellent) and nearly immediately segues into a partnership of robbing banks.  The jagged genre push elevates The Place Beyond the Pines from somber into to something else entirely, but it's hinged on the half-baked idea that Luke, a intriguing man who may not exactly be the brightest, honestly believes his thrust into crime is for the best.  However, there's an absorbing feeling, coupled with Gosling masterly portrayal, that this mere setup will pay off in rich dividends emotionally.  Sadly, that's where the bigger than it needs to be sense of pretension gets the better of Cianfrance, who wrote the screenplay with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.

Suddenly just over an hour into the enterprise, The Place Beyond the Pines shifts gears to Bradley Cooper, a boy scout cop who is elevated into hero status in one of the biggest circuitous twists in store.  As jarring as the newly instated double header seems at first, the second chapter of the film, while failing to be quite as utterly absorbing or as thrilling as its beginning, still has its rewards, mostly because Cooper, who broods nearly as much as Gosling is in top form, but also because there's a slightly nifty counterpoint to his character's supposed nobility that matched with an ambition and headiness of its own.  He plays Avery Cross, a family man with a one year old son as well...remember that bit, nothing in The Place Beyond the Pines is unintentional.  Cross becomes embroiled in a scandal of sorts with some pretty shifty cops-- Ray Liotta plays the shiftiest, who reads as trouble from his first appearance.  It almost feels like Cianfrance is riffing on Julius Caesar or something as Cross, whose father is a former politico, and his moral compass become tampered by his new found reputation, guile and greed.

Just as his story appears to be unwinding, The Place Beyond the Pines decides its not quite over yet as the screen fades out and a title card reads, "15 YEARS LATER."  There was audible shrieks and jostling in seats at this moment, and it appears that the full circle triptych of Cianfrance's labor was to conclude, most jarringly, with the now teenage children of Luke and Avery.  Played by Dale DeHaan (Lawless,Chronicle) and Emory Cohen (notable for his "colorfully critiqued" character as Debra Messing's son on the TV show Smash) play Jason and AJ, who are bonded more so by the forces of nature than by mere coincidental high school experiences.  It's shame and more than a bit of over-the-top bombastic one at that the Cianfrance chooses to conclude his meticulous "mythic" tale in such a decidedly thump like fashion.  It's not quite the fault of the actors (if nothing else, Cianfrance proves his gift of bringing out the best and most natural in his performers), but the heavy-handed direction of a tale that not quite as big and mighty as the filmmakers may assume it to be.  C

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