Novelistic ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is the first truly great film of 2013
The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
There’s something very special about The Place Beyond the Pines, perhaps not in its plot as in its execution. Co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance slowly unfurls a tangled web, starting out simply in crafting a small-town tragedy that only becomes weightier as the film reaches its natural end point. The Place Beyond the Pines deals with characters in wholly realistic situations, toeing the line of melodrama but never tipping over, remaining fully grounded, levelheaded, and low-key even as the reverberations of a handful of actions from one generation topple over into the next, affecting more people with each response from its players.
Ryan Gosling stars as Luke Glanton, a thrill-seeking motorcyclist who works at a traveling carnival. While in Schenectady, New York, Luke reconnects with an old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes) and discovers that, in the last year, she had a little boy, and he’s the father. Luke is inspired to strive toward a semblance of respectability, so he stays behind and tries to make ends meet so he can provide for Romina and their son Jason, even though she’s moved on and is with another man. Along with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), the mechanic he works with, Luke begins robbing banks to get by. But soon after he starts and gets a taste for the adrenaline rush of committing such crimes, Luke attracts the attention of the local cops, specifically a young officer named Avery (Bradley Cooper).
The Place Beyond the Pines, so called for the English translation of the Mohawk word “Schenectady,” is close to a carousel in structure, one that would not be out of place at that traveling carnival where we first meet Luke in an extended tracking shot. Round and round it goes, taking the audience on an exacting, circular up-and-down ride. Cianfrance, along with co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, lets the film linger in moments, allowing it a hypnotic, novelistic pacing. Rare is the film that could afford to be longer if only to fill in all the gaps; rarer still is the film that is successful in its aims yet deserves further expansion. The Place Beyond the Pines is that film, clocking in at 140 minutes but one that would likely be as compelling, intelligent, and heartbreaking at three hours.
Cianfrance, fresh off the indie success of Blue Valentine, does reunite here with that film’s lead, Gosling, but the rest of the cast outshines the blond wonder (who’s, make no mistake, quite solid). Cooper, now an Oscar nominee, proves again that with the right material and director, he’s got the chops to play complex characters. Avery is, at times, nakedly ambitious, clashing with what he presumes is his conscience, which he so badly wants to be pure even as those around him encourage him to jump to the top of the careerist ladder instead of taking one rung at a time. Mendes, as a world-weary mom, so embodies that adjective in her slumped gait and face, playing a young beauty whose life was sapped away by her lower-class surroundings; it’s a stunning, if subtle, performance. But it’s in the work from people like Ray Liotta, as a cop with questionable ethics; Bruce Greenwood, as a taciturn attorney; Mendelsohn, as Luke’s first and only friend in Schenectady; and Dane DeHaan, as a teenager trying to grasp what his purpose is in life where you can imagine this film being longer, fuller, and even more satisfying.
What we have in the finished product, though, is plenty satisfying by itself, especially in the moments when the greater themes are emphasized so well, you can almost hear them clicking into place. Sometimes, it’s even just in a pleasantly surprising payoff, as when Robin mentions Hall and Oates to Luke in a welcome bit of levity, then later, we see Avery driving along the city streets with some colleagues, as “Maneater” plays on the car stereo. But there’s duality and repetition all throughout The Place Beyond the Pines, scenes where the connections between these characters are reinforced: handheld camerawork (in Sean Bobbitt’s consistently exemplary cinematography) of characters walking into a room or building where they’re celebrated loudly, or of one character being taken along a circuitous, foreboding route through the forests near Schenectady at multiple, crucial points in their life. It’s here that The Place Beyond the Pines all but begs for repeat viewings, not because you can only appreciate the movie by watching it twice; instead, you’ll simply appreciate it more on a second or third check-in.
The year is young and barely boasting any serious competition, so acknowledging that The Place Beyond the Pines is one of its best films so far is only a moderate hosanna. What is more accurate to say is that this is an uncommonly introspective and cutting crime epic. Like most ambitious films, The Place Beyond the Pines does not succeed in every one of its aims, specifically in a few glaringly clunky lines of dialogue. No matter: the film’s moody, genuinely soulful tone and its play on the notion of the sins of the father eventually being visited upon the son feel fresh, exciting, and revelatory. The Place Beyond the Pines is an excellent piece of work, direct, unfussy, and powerful from top to bottom.
— Josh Spiegel