I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Place Beyond the Pines

tn_placebeyondFrom the trailers, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, from director Derek Cianfrance (BLUE VALENTINE), seemed weirdly similar to DRIVE.  Instead of a movie stunt driver who’s also a getaway driver, Ryan Gosling plays a carnival motorcycle stunt driver who becomes a bank robber. Instead of having a weird relationship with a married woman and her son he has a weird relationship with an ex-fling (Eva Mendes) who he’s just found out has his son (but lives with a boyfriend who doesn’t want him coming around). I’d heard that it wasn’t really what it looks like, that it “turns into something different,” that it’s “epic.” All these things are true, and I’m glad I didn’t know the specifics of it. But I gotta talk about those specifics if I’m gonna review it, so be warned.

Gosling plays “Handsome” Luke Glanton, bleach blond, shittily tattooed Metallica enthusiast. He’s as distant and dead-eyed as in DRIVE but not as sensitive. When he finds out about his son he’s more angry at the mom for not telling him than aware of his own failings for abandoning her without a trace a year ago. But he realizes that his father not being around is part of what made him a guy with a dagger-tear face tattoo, so he decides to try a non-deadbeat approach to life, quit the carnival, stay in town and try to provide for them. And he’s a really talented mechanic and finds a job and home with Ben Mendelsohn from ANIMAL KINGDOM, but they don’t get all that much work and babies are expensive. Next think you know they start doing bank robberies together.

It’s shot in a matter of fact way, alot of following around from behind, a style I believe was popularized by the Dardenne brothers but I’ve seen it in Gus Van Sant and Darren Aranofsky movies. It’s kinda hypnotic to follow behind him on his motorcycle, driving and driving. But the best shot is right at the beginning of the movie, and he’s actually walking his bike through the carnival grounds and into the area where he and two other riders drive inside a round cage at the same time. It’s obvious where the sleight of hand takes place but still great to see it all done in one shot.

mp_placebeyondIt’s another really captivating Gosling character, part badass, part poser, kind of a weirdo, kind of cool, interesting to watch. And I always enjoy the thrill and dread of a well done crime procedural. You watch him enough that you identify with him and want him to get away with the money and help with that baby. But he’s not a gentleman thief, and his shrieking “GET ON THE FUCKING GROUND!” bankside manner is probly an expression of his true self.

He’s trying to change his life and do good by his son and baby mama, but he’s forcing it. He gets them together for a photo, like a family photo from happier times. But it’s not even happier times. He has to put his hand over her face because she’s crying. It comes off looking playful.

Around this point you might remember, like I did, that the trailer and the credits had MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN’s Bradley Cooper in them. Well, this is where it turns into something different. One day Luke pushes it too far, gets chased down after a robbery, and Avery (Cooper) is the cop who corners him in a house and shoots him. Dead. So now all the sudden we get PSYCHOed, or even FROM DUSK TILL DAWNed, we’re watching this other movie about this cop who’s being called a hero, but who is haunted by guilt over shooting a guy that he maybe didn’t have to, and who at any rate left behind a one year old son just like he has. Cooper is really good in this, particularly in a scene with a therapist, trying to come to terms with his guilt.

It’s funny, he gets shot too, and when he wakes up in the hospital Bruce Greenwood is there to question him about what happened, just like what happened to Denzel after his plane crash in FLIGHT. Rule of thumb: if you wake up in a hospital and Bruce Greenwood is asking you questions, you’re in trouble.

To make matters worse, Avery is off the streets while recovering and some cops stop by one night during dinner to say hi and one of them is Ray Liotta. And that’s a rule that’s set in stone, man. If Ray Liotta is playing a cop he’s not there just to say hi.

Well, there’s this whole story that happens dealing with the consequences of the shooting and people wanting the stolen money and how Avery tries to navigate the situation and then all the sudden… 15 YEARS LATER. I actually said “Oh shit!” I didn’t know it would have this kinda scope.

We pick up with Avery, now a a bigshot running for attorney general, and his fuckup son AJ (Emory Cohen) wants to come live with him. He’s a loud-mouthed, slicked-back hair meathead and he comes to this new school in Schenectady, sits down by Jason (Dane DeHaan, the kid who is in every movie that has been made since CHRONICLE) in the cafeteria, starts talking to him about what they do around here and maybe we should go smoke some weed together, and you probly see what I was too slow to see coming, that this is the late Luke Glanton’s son.

So this is a story about the two 1 year old babies now teenagers and getting into  trouble together. And during this time Jason finds out who his father was and figures out who AJ’s father is. And there’s alot of irony here. The son of the neglectful cop turned out way more of a douche than the son of the dead bank robber. On the other hand, the more likable kid is the more psychotic one, the one that might actually be dangerous. And Avery, as much of a sleazeball as he’s turned into, behaves honorably when he realizes that this is the son of the guy he killed.

I think the titleatical place beyond the pines refers to where the climax takes place, but I don’t know. It sounds metaphorical, doesn’t it? I don’t know the significance of it. It does seem like a story that would be based on a novel, and a novel would have a title like that that would make more sense in the book, but that’s not the case here. Maybe it’s just a cool title made up for the drive-ins like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

I really dig the unusual structure of the movie. It’s kind of like an anthology of three short stories, but they’re so tied together that it’s a little more than that. It’s about different characters from two sides and two generations but their stories all work together to explore variations on this theme of fathers and sons, how the fathers try and fail to do the right thing, how that affects the sons, and how much their fathers mean to them, even though they don’t want to admit it.

This multi-generational approach also creates a unique opportunity for us to both relate to the kid’s quest to find out about his dad and be the older guy who was there and knows how it really went down. There’s a great scene where Jason tracks down the old crime partner Mendelsohn, who waxes nostalgic about his old man. And it’s weird because we know about their falling out that he’s not mentioning, that led to Luke’s downfall. You can’t blame him for not wanting to do robberies anymore, but he probly feels some guilt since Luke wouldn’t have been caught if he wasn’t on his own. We also know Luke wasn’t the great guy he sounds like in these stories. But also we have to admit that the stories are true. He was great on a motorcycle, he was funny sometimes, we liked watching him and understand why this guy was friends with him. And maybe the kid deserves to know some positive things about where he came from that aren’t gonna be in the newspaper articles he found.

And then there’s that family photo again. It shows up at a perfect time, in a meaningful place. It looks so happy. Maybe it’s better if we pretend it is.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 13th, 2013 at 1:02 pm and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “The Place Beyond the Pines”

  1. From Wikipedia:

    “The title is the English meaning of the city of Schenectady, New York, which is derived loosely from a Mohawk word for ‘place beyond the pine plains.'”

  2. This film has it’s problems; it’s ambitious structure leads to a little sloppiness, I didn’t care much for the handheld visual style, and I think it’s plotting (which hinges on some pretty major coincidences) doesn’t always quite jibe with the more “realistic” tone it’s trying to go for. Yet I have to say, it’s stuck with me more than most other movies I’ve seen this year, and I should definitely give it another viewing to better suss out my feelings. It has such a palpable sense of melancholy and tragedy, and the final scene really did break my heart a little bit.

  3. I liked this more than I thought I would. I’m still not sold on Bradley Cooper, he’s always “Bradley Cooper,” but he didn’t flat out ruin this. I know Gosling is going through his diCaprio period of hunky oversaturation, but I’ve been a respecter since American History X. And just like Leonardo weathered the famenado of Titanic, after showing incredible skill as a kid–acting rings around DeNiro in This Boy’s Life, getting Oscar nommed at 18 for going full retard in Gilbert Grape–Gosling will continue to be one the the greatest actors of his generation.

    (Oh and, the POV from behind, I think of that as a Leone trademark, no?)

  4. I had surrounded the phrase “greatest actor of his generation” with fake “cliche” tags, you know for the funny, but they were CENSORED this COMMIE FASCIST blog interface. Obamacare is after your children!

  5. I thought the first two-thirds were terrific. That first act, about Gosling, built a tremendous emotional intensity and an almost mythic tone. And while it was a lot quieter, I found the Cooper act compelling.

    But that third act just didn’t live up to the rest. It was still interesting, but was built on a contrived melodrama setup, then didn’t actually pay off with any melodrama to make up for the coincidences it was based on. It felt like it was avoiding actually going anywhere. Even the finale in the forest was underwhelming to me. And the kids just weren’t as intriguing as Gosling and Cooper.

    I also thought Mendes’ character was underwritten. She was great in the role, but didn’t have nearly enough to do. Same goes to a lesser extent for the Rose Byrne character, though she was at least a minor enough part that it wasn’t too frustrating.

    Still, it’s a really good film, one of the best so far this year. I just wish that last act had lived up to the first ninety minutes.

  6. All I know is Ben Mendelsohn blew my balls off in this movie. I gotta see that guy in more stuff.

    One thing I really liked about the third part of the movie is how natural the dialogue felt between the two teens. It felt very true to how teenage boys relate to each other.

    All the stonyfaced psychos Gosling plays lately aren’t really compelling to me. I hear people lauding him for something like his performance in this and it makes me wonder if I just don’t understand good acting or something. I think he’s most interesting when cracks in the facade start appearing (like his high pitched screaming in the bank robbery scenes).

    This movie stuck with me long after watching it, and I can’t really articulate why. It just has a certain power.

  7. Funny that you mention the visual style of the film, Dan, because it has exactly the kind of handheld aesthetic and technique that I like. If you’re gonna go handheld, this is the way to do it. In many ways it’s the opposite of shakycam. It’s still loose and in-the-moment, but there’s something rather elegant about it. It communicates well, and has a way of suggesting that there is something more to an image than just the sum of its individual elements, like in that scene where Gosling is racing on his bike in the woods where Mendelsohn spots him and it gets kinda impressionistic. And it really walks that line between intimate and epic very well.

    There’s very little that I didn’t like about this film. Excellent and ambitious filmmaking, in my opinion.

  8. I pretty much loved this movie, I think, even though I guess on some level I’m aware of it’s flaws. But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie which is better able to communicate the weight of the past on the present, giving both much greater power. Any one of the three sections would be a fine movie on it’s own, but when you connect them in this manner it’s kind of stunning how much difference it makes. Actually having seen Gosling’s story lets us make all kinds of emotional and tragic connections to the kids’ story in the last segment… but amazingly it also works in reverse, adding new meaning and depth to that story as well.

    Here’s an interesting question: would this movie have been possible to do in a nonlinear way? Could we start with the kids and then work out way back to Gosling, or even tell all three stories simultaneously? I almost feel like that would have emphasized the back-and-forth exchange between them, but maybe it would also have been distracting.

  9. The three stories in reverse is a cool idea. The kids’ story would have to be reworked a bit, but it might have been more effective if we learned the connections along with them, and putting Gosling at the end would have let it go out on a bang. Then maybe use the last scene from the kids’ story as an epilogue. In fact, I think I would have liked it even more that way.

    Not sure interconnecting would have worked – it’s probably at about the right level of complexity as it is.

  10. Knox,

    To each his own, of course. I’m a little sick of the handheld style myself (and the murky color palette); it’s overdone, looks ugly, and is kind of an obnoxious shorthand for “real” and “gritty.” Which, again, I thought kinda flew in the face of the movie’s less-than-plausible story. I had somewhat similar problems with the director’s very similar approach to BLUE VALENTINE. Vern was right to compare the style to that of the Dardennes… of whom I’m so far not much of a fan.

    Honestly, I kept thinking about THE GODFATHER during this, the way it’s a crime drama but epic, focused on families. But the difference is Coppola slicker visual style I think better fits the heightened world of his film. And he’s not afraid to make his set pieces apologetically entertaining, great looking and stylish.

  11. Mr. S,

    I would tread lightly with that approach, which is exactly what (I felt) ruined 28 GRAMS. If you’re gonna go non-linear, you need to really have a clear purpose (Tarantino is a master of this, obvs), otherwise it’s just a bunch of directorial show-off wankery. (I.E. look at how clever we are by scrambling up this story!)

  12. Dan — I just wonder if it might have even further emphasized the way the different narratives lend each other emotional weight. As it is, the third section really benefits from our knowledge of where this began, but the other two only really benefit in retrospect. Possibly allowing them to interact a bit more during the film’s runtime would have strengthened them all a little. Although I think 21 GRAMS (that’s what you mean, right?) spliced up it’s story for exactly the same reason, and I guess that one didn’t work for you. Lots of movies use nonlinear storytelling just to show off, or to throw in a twist which otherwise would have to naturally fall in the middle or the story or something — but I think in this case there’s a good case to be made for trying it that way. Still might have been distracting, though, and that might have made the haunting, hypnotic quality of the film work less well.

  13. It also would have kind of ruined the epic feeling of the film, the passage of time wouldn’t really hit you as hard if the chronology was jumbled.

  14. And honestly, the more I think about it, I prefer that the film allows you to make your own connections between all these events rather than underlining it for you. Cutting from a scene of Gosling with his motorcycle to his son buy the motorcycle at the end (or whatever kind of parallels you might choose) would just feel so heavy handed.

  15. Dan, don’t get me wrong, I also prefer the more fluid classic style of camerawork. Give me Kubrick or Coppola’s visuals any day. I was just saying that if you’re gonna go with the loose handheld look, that’s my preferred way to do it (rather than that shit they pull in movies like The Hunger Games).

    And I agree with you that jumbled chronology has become a gimmick more than an actual motivated storytelling decision. Really glad we didn’t have any of that in The Place Beyond The Pines.

  16. I’m with you Knox. I really liked how the camera stayed in tight on Luke during the final, botched bank robbery – we see about as much as luke sees, and we feel his anxiety as he turns every corner. And the motorcycle chase shot iirc entirely from the POV of the police cars is killer. I got more of a visceral kick out of that sequence than anything in FURIOUS SIX. And the images of Luke and later his kid riding down roads on their bikes, the camera following from behind and above (ie. third person perspective) while the haunting score played, were really memorable

  17. Yeah, for me it was handheld for all the right reasons. Cianfrance seems to really focus on character and theme, and his filmmaking techniques are in support of that focus. I think we’re gonna see some great films from him in the years to come.

    Anyway, I’m off to watch Pacific Rim (in Three-Dee!). Need my giant robot fix.

  18. Just watched it on HBO. There are many individual elements I admire, the performances, certain camera angles (especially during the robberies), and some of the music (especially the use of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” and the piano theme). But it falls a little short for me of the praise it’s been getting here. The nonlinear question posed above is a good one. It may have worked if you had less of Cooper’s character (and at least make an effort to make him look 15 years older for Pete’s sake) in what’s the last third of the film, and slowly work the audience into revealing who these two kids are.

  19. Great movie, in my top 3 most memorable of last year(with WEST OF MEMPHIS and ZERO DARK THIRTY.)

    I’m a sucker for these fathers and sons and their legacies stories. For some reason this reminded me of AT CLOSE RANGE. Different story and structure, but with the same theme of sons looking for a father figure, finding that their legacies aren’t so good, and learning to accept it and move on or put an end to it.

    I think Sean Penn’s final scene(in ACR) in court giving up his dad, the great Chris Walken, is some of the best and most powerful acting I’ve seen.

  20. Just saw this today – great movie, though I also think the third act was not quite on par with the rest. Did anyone notice how they made the women look 15 years older, but none of the men?

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>