The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
My first thought as The Place Beyond the Pines got underway was this: Ryan Gosling is smack in the middle of his “strong, silent tough guy” period. After Drive, this film, and the Refn/Gosling follow-up, Only God Forgives, it’s clear that the man formerly known best by his work in a Nicolas Sparks’ adaptation has now been typecast, but this isn’t nearly as disconcerting as it probably should be, only because Gosling makes these sorts of archetypal roles so damn magnetic. However, this film from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance (which also starred Gosling, and which I haven’t seen), exists in its own world, richly built upon beautifully crafted characters and history. The phrase that immediately springs to mind is “wonderfully strange”. It is a challenging film, long and ambitious in its scope, resonant in the simplicity of its themes, and above all, as haunting and beautiful as anything I’ve seen in recent memory.
The Place Beyond the Pines opens with Luke, a man, who, from the word go, is presented as the anti-hero to top anti-heroes. His skin is covered from head to toe in terrible tattoos, possibly acquired while in prison. He is perpetually nursing a cigarette that dangles from his lower lip. He wears torn and tattered clothing. He makes his money as a motorcycle stunt driver in a traveling carnival, where his biggest fans are ten-year-olds. He leaves these disciples behind, however, when he spies Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress and one-night stand he remembers from some time back. Luke drives Romina home on the back of his bike, clearly angling to spend the night before he leaves town, but she declines his advances, saying she has a boyfriend. Confused, he comes back one last time before splitting, and discovers that he and Romina have a son, who she is raising with the help of her mother and Kofi(Mahershala Ali), her boyfriend and roommate. Things are about to get complicated.
Luke quits his job on a whim, determined to become a part of his son’s life, which Romina balks at. Newly unemployed, penniless, and shunned in every possible way, Luke races through the pine forest outside of town on his bike, in a near-suicidal blaze. He’s noticed by Jack (Craig Van Hook), a fellow miscreant and auto shop worker who offers him a ride back to town, and then a job. It’s sporadic work, not nearly enough to bring Romina and son over to his side, but Jack soon reveals his real reason for bringing Luke close: bank robbery. Having successfully knocked over a few banks in his time (or so he claims) Jack has a new plan that calls for someone with Luke’s unique skill set.
Anybody who has seen the trailer for The Place Beyond the Pines knows what happens next: the two men begin robbing banks, and rather easily, at that. As money flows in, Romina begins to slowly let Luke into his son Jason’s life, but a string of events leads to Luke running afoul of the cops. One of these officers, Avery (Bradley Cooper) radically alters the course of the film and the lives of its characters in ways I certainly didn’t see coming when I first sat down in the theater. It’s difficult to continue to sum up the plot without getting into major spoiler territory at this point, so I’ll only caution audiences that those expecting a classic action-heist film, or, as one critic aptly put the misrepresentation, “Drive with motorcycles”, will be sadly disappointed.
The title The Place Beyond the Pines refers to the pine forest in which each of the film’s three protagonists attempts to find redemption. It’s an apt metaphor for the theme of recurrence that the film (of course) returns to time and again. Ultimately, the movie is about three men who try in their own flawed ways to do the right thing with the scant resources available to them, and seems to suppose that maybe this is what most human beings are struggling to do as they while out their remaining hours. It’s a powerful and beautiful notion, driven home by majestic photography and a haunting score from Mike Patton. However, as with any character study, it’s the performances that really make The Place Beyond the Pines work.
Gosling’s Luke could easily have been written away as a classic anti-hero: the down-on-his-luck bad boy who we love to hate, and root for even though we know he’s wrong. Instead, Luke is presented as something of a tragic representation of a true criminal. He’s passionate in all the worst ways: quick to anger, never thinking of consequences, and lacking both the intellectual and emotional fortitude to make responsible decisions. To put it bluntly, Luke is, like most petty criminals, stupid, and it’s his stupidity that makes his eventual fall from grace more tragic than romantic. Likewise, Cooper’s Avery is also fundamentally flawed, but in the opposite fashion: his ambition eventually eclipses his innate sense of right and wrong, and as he pursues his goals, the means begin to overwhelm the ends. Both actors do superb work, but a special nod should be given to Cooper, who, having already proved himself with great comic turns in films like Wet Hot American Summer, Wedding Crashers, and The Hangover, is finally proving his dramatic mettle, as this role follows his well-deserved Oscar nod for Silver Linings Playbook.
It’s difficult to describe what makes this film so enchanting without, in my opinion, spoiling part of that magic. So much is going on here, and the film so steadfastly refuses to lead its audience by the nose, that it feels like a breath of fresh air in the age of constant franchise reboots and 3D repackagings. The marketing campaign for The Place Beyond the Pines is more than a little annoying, as I fear most people who walk in will be unprepared for the long and slow burn they are in store for. Those who stick around will be treated not only to an expertly told and superbly crafted story, but they’ll be witness to some fairly daring experimentation within the confines of traditional narrative filmmaking. This sort of risk-taking and faith in audiences’ appetite for inspection is what we need more of, and, in my opinion, what, box office results notwithstanding, the vast majority of filmgoers want. Novelty has its place, but craftsmanship and commitment to excellence will always trump slapped-together bells and whistles.
The Place Beyond the Pines is as much a story about mythology as it is a classic “Sins of Our Fathers” tale. The story spans a period of fifteen years, and characters change and move within the narrative in an undulating, wave-like fashion that seems eerily similar to the oral tradition of tall tales. As the film unfurls to its conclusion (at 140 minutes, it’s quite a tale indeed), the sons of both Luke and Avery pick up the story and present the audience with a compelling question: are we more than what we came from? It’s by no means an original sentiment, but Cianfrance has jumped into the water with both feet first, spinning a breathtakingly ambitious story that reminds us what myths are made of.