THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES Review: Blood, Regret, and Years
How do you define someone’s life? Is it by the legacy they left behind? Is it by the contributions to society that they made? Is it by the number of children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren they were (ultimately) responsible for spawning? The answer to all of those and so many more is Yes. Every person’s life is defined by something unique to that person.
But at a level above that, at a level not defined by bucks or by brood, is a measure that applies to us all: every life, successful or failed, happy or sad, fulfilled or incomplete, is ultimately defined by choices. Did we turn left instead of right? Did we we say No instead of Yes? Did we do good instead of bad? And at the time when choices are made, the long-term impact of each choice usually can’t be predicted; it takes the passage of time to fully understand the ramifications of given decisions.
And that’s what’s at the heart of The Place Beyond the Pines, a film told in three distinct, deliberately connected acts: the choices people make and the long-term ramifications those choices have on people who make them, their loved ones, and their legacies.
Act I is about Luke, played by Ryan Gosling. Luke is a motorcycle stuntman employed by a traveling carnival (he and two others exploit the laws of centrifugal force by riding at ridiculous speeds – and not crashing into each other – in one of those tiny steel spheres). On the last night in Schenectady before the carnival leaves town, Luke sees Romina (Eva Mendes) in the crowd. They know each other. Fast forward one year later, when the carnival is back in town. Luke pays a visit to Romina’s house and discovers she has a son … his son. At that moment, and driven by the fact that his own father was never around, Luke vows to provide for his son, but with little more than the occasional mechanic job from his new friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke turns to a life of robbing banks.
Act II is about Avery, played by Bradley Cooper. Avery, the son of a judge (Harris Yulin), is a Schenectady beat cop with less than a year of experience under his holster. Fate steps in when the pursuit of a criminal turns into a shootout that ends the criminal’s life and begins Avery’s career as a hero. His recovery from having been shot is slow, and the damage turns out to have been more than physical. Avery’s relationship with his wife (Rose Byrne) is strained, and he struggles to connect with his own baby boy, as the criminal he killed had a son of his own. When corrupt detective Deluca (Ray Liotta) pays Avery a visit and recruits him to pay the criminal’s widow a visit, Avery’s life changes forever.
Act III takes place 15 years later and looks at the consequences of Luke and Avery’s life choices.
It’s important that I get this out of the way immediately: as of this writing, I am not a fan of the first Cianfrance/Gosling collaboration, 2010’s Blue Valentine (also starring Michelle Williams). And it was because of that lack of warm-and-fuzzy that I was concerned I wouldn’t care for this film, either. By twenty minutes in, Blue Valentine was a distant memory, and by the end of the film, I was ready to give Blue Valentine another chance.
The Place Beyond the Pines is simply fantastic, from the visuals to the actors to the story.
While many of Cianfrance’s shot selections keep eyes riveted to the screen – from the winding travels in the forests of New York shot from above to motorcycles racing at harrowing speeds and captured by cameras mounted to the bikes, two things really stand out in his second major cinematic effort.
The first is the director’s understanding of how to maximize the looks of his leads. Gosling and Cooper are two of Hollywood’s hottest heartthrobs, and while the who-is-hotter debate is one better left for the supermarket tabloids, Cianfrance wisely dips Gosling in ink to play up his bad-boy image, and at the same time takes a grooming kit to Cooper’s perpetual scruff and mane and turns him into a nearly too-clean cut cop (actually making Cooper look a little less handsome than usual). These choices garner more sympathy for Gosling’s Luke and make Cooper’s Avery more believable. As for Mendes, she’s pretty, but real-world so; she’s got the lines of someone who has struggled to stay afloat in lower-middleclass America. Never is she anywhere near the level of sexiness that has placed her on many men’s magazines’ “Hottest” lists, and this is a good thing.
(It’s also amazing to me how Gosling is so self-aware of how he looks onscreen, and what will make him look better. The camera loves him, and his understanding of how to maximize that – with a glance or a simple turn of the head – makes it love him even more.)
The second is how Cinafrance and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frame and shoot settings in ways that create claustrophobia in large spaces (the forests of New York State) and grandeur in confined settings (the church where Luke’s son is baptized). Even the carnival where Luke works, with its crowds and bustle and endless noise, has a warm, personable feel to it.
But no matter how pretty the stars or how pretty the settings, without a solid story, a film is hollow at best. Not this one. Here, Cianfrance offers three compelling tales. And even though the third tale relies on the second and the first, and even though the second tale relies on the first, no particular story is so dependent on another that it cannot stand on its own. It’s rather clever, really, as the stories are much more sophisticated than those found in anthologies that might only share one thing in common (think 1995’s Four Rooms with Ted the Bellhop). They really are three excellent individual films that, when connected, make one larger, better film.
Yet for all of this ambition, Cianfrance pays attention to the little things too – details that remind the viewer of things that came before. And I’m not talking about the recurring theme of fathers and sons; that’s obvious. I cannot give away anything, but if you see the film, keep in mind things like the ice cream stand and Hall & Oates (yes, that Hall & Oates). These tiny details not only serve the purpose of keeping the three stories deftly woven together, they illustrate that Cianfrance is paying close attention to the details and not letting his ambition run away with him.
The Place Beyond the Pines has visuals that dazzle throughout, it succinctly captures three vastly different yet equally corrupt swatches of life, and, most impressively, it is ambitious in storytelling yet intimate in story. It might still be early, but to this point, it is the best film of 2013.