Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Tale of Three Movies: The Place Beyond the Pines

     I was loving The Place Beyond the Pines (the second major film directed by Derek Cianfrance, after 2010's awesomely depressing Blue Valentine)...until I was worried it was going to suck. But then it didn't: it slowly built up steam anew, and I was really liking it again...until another event happens that made me think the rest of the movie would suck. But again: it didn't. The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic and awesome and fault-filled film that is bursting with ebbs and flows and frustrating changes of pace. It's a film that spans almost two decades, two different families, and two men who may have more similarities than either would admit. Sometimes the film feels like it's grasping at straws, trying to make connections where none need to be: but can you fault over-ambition--with all of its annoyances--when some of the performances are this good and the film's style is so full of tension?
     The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie told in three distinct acts, and that's what makes it so peculiar. Not that I'll spoil anything major, because it's best to go into this sprawling film with no idea of the plot or situations. We first meet Luke (Ryan Gosling) in a tracking shot as he walks to perform one of his death-defying motorcycle stunts. Covered in tattoos and showing his typical intense stare, one might think that this is Drive 2.0, with Gosling playing a man of few words but capable of ferocious violence. Pines is more complex than that, though. Luke strikes up a one-night-stand with Romina (Eva Mendes), and when his traveling carnival comes back into town a year later, he learns that he has an infant son. So he quits his job and becomes friends with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, who was so great in last year's Killing Them Softly), a local mechanic who convinces Luke that a good way to provide for his new family would be to rob local banks, skillfully speeding away on his bike at 100 miles an hour. Gosling's performance is another great one. He's the spark in almost any film that he acts in, and even more so in Pines: he's the catalyst that keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
     Soon enough, Luke--drawing attention from his bank robberies--crosses paths with rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and it's here that the film shifts its focus to its second distinct act. Bradley Cooper does a fine job with Cross, a timid cop who realizes that he's the middle of mass corruption and double-crossing in the police department. Ray Liotta pops up with his usual thuggish and grimy officer of the law (that's not a detriment; this man is always entertaining). The Place Beyond the Pines was actually filmed a few months before Bradley Copper's Oscar-nominated performance in The Silver Linings Playbook, and it's not hard to see. He does an admirable job here, but he looks younger and has less confidence than in last year's wonderful film.
     The third act takes place years in the future, and it involves parallels and coincidences that tie into the stories of the two main men. It's also the act of the film that is the most unintentionally funny, as some connections seem like they were drawn with a crayon instead of screenwriter's professional pen. Take a movie like Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent Magnolia: now that's a film where the threads of time are weaved throughout all of the characters and they all have unknowable intimate connections with each other that come to fruition by the end of its run time. In fact, Derek Cianfrance--who is clearly a director to keep an eye on, as he'd made two very thoughtful films--is similar to Paul Thomas Anderson in a lot of good ways: his use of very interesting tracking shots, his ability to coax out some incredible performances, and his choice of score, which really adds tension to nearly every single scene. In the collection of Anderson's films, though, The Place Beyond the Pines is most like Boogie Nights--not Magnolia. It's over ambitious, spans numerous years, and it's filled with plenty of ups and downs that take a viewer through a sometime-slow-sometimes-fast cinematic experience that is always worthwhile.
      The Place Beyond the Pines is a big jumble: it has many aspects that brings goosebumps to your skin and a few that make you roll your eyes and check the time. It's a film that is 140 minutes long that at times feels too short and at times feels too long. It also begs the question of whether or not its chronological order of scenes wouldn't have been more interesting mixed up, ala Pulp Fiction or something of similar fashion. But still, the question arises again: can you fault Derek Cianfrance's over-ambitiousness in this film about fathers and sons and life's connections? The answer is No. The Place Beyond the Pines is a totally admirable attempt at an epic story, one with plenty of faults that are mild annoyances instead of major displeasure.    (B+)

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