After the film tonight, there will be a Question and Answer period with the director and co-writer, Derek Cianfrance. Bonus. I wrote, not long ago, about expectations and how they ruin a movie. Well, I was overinclusive—it can ruin a movie, but not when Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Cianfrance are involved. I’ll modify the rule to be as follows: Expectation will defuse a movie unless there is enough there that you didn’t expect. So, basically what I’m saying is that I’m now consciously trying to ruin your movie experience. But I’m not going to overhype it. Don’t go into The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) expecting too much. It’s only tied for the best movie of the year so far (with Stoker (2013) (review).
Schenectady, New York, is an American city. Luke (Ryan Gosling), the heartthrob, travels with a carnival, performing in a three-man motorcycle stunt act. One night, a former fling, Romina (Eva Mendes), shows up at the carnival to see him, but doesn’t say much. Luke comes back to her house to find that he has a son, Jason. Luke wants to stay and do the right thing, but there isn’t much for him there. His new friend, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), suggests they rob a bank and, eventually, Luke consents. This story leads into that of police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) who is traumatized and lionized after he’s shot in the line of duty. This makes life difficult at home with his wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and son AJ. When he returns to active duty, he is embroiled in corruption with no easy ways to get out of it. Fifteen years later, AJ (Emory Cohen) is having a difficult time at home and moves in with his father, who is in the midst of a campaign for New York Attorney General. Early on, AJ meets Jason (Dane DeHaan) and they strike up a friendship but have to come to terms with their legacy.
Cianfrance with co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder have written a great movie. Where performances really made Blue Valentine (2010) (review) what it was—and Cianfrance even said that Gosling and Michelle Williams really co-wrote the movie—The Place Beyond the Pines is a classic plot of three stories (but not intercut). That said, there are some devices at which I can imagine a jaded viewer might blanch. Parallels between the generations are so well-worn as to become cliché and one parallel in particular is so easy to spot that one has to be somewhat forgiving. But you need not forgive too much because the theme by Mike Patton, which you hear in the trailer, is exceptional and saves that moment in particular—breathtaking. The musical choices are terrific, but slightly ill-used. That theme, for example, comes in a bit too early to be as effective as it might have been (and was in the latter third of the film).
Did I mention Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Bradley Cooper, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, and (though I’d never seen him before) Emory Cohen? Well I didn’t even mention Mahershala Ali (who plays Mendes’ boyfriend and husband Kofi) and Ray Liotta (who plays a corrupt cop). In the Q&A, Cianfrance described Liotta as a “human knife” and is just the most frightening looking person. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the Capital District and when Ray Liotta comes on screen it’s like I’m there. He’s just perfect. Gosling we know is great and nobody looks into the middle distance as well as he does. Mendes is also established as a beauty with the talent to play the rougher parts (and this is the best I’ve seen her). Cooper got a lot of plaudits for Silver Linings Playbook (2012), but it’s this movie that proved to me that Cooper’s the real deal. He isn’t at Gosling’s level of intensity, but he’s not just a pretty face.
Mendelsohn I first noticed in Killing Them Softly (2012) (and was impressed) (review) and The Place Beyond the Pines just entrenches him as one of the best slightly greasy down-and-out characters working. DeHaan is well on his way and if you don’t know his name you should learn it now and impress your friends at parties. Oh, sorry, that’s annoy your friends at parties. On a final note, I made a comment in the theater, “Rose Byrne is nailing it.” There is no weak link. Except, possible, the baby that looks more like Don Rickles than Gosling/Mendes’s baby could possibly look.
The look of the film from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is very good. Cianfrance said that he tries to find the place between documentary and fantasy and The Place Beyond the Pines sits squarely in that position. I liked it and Cianfrance gets right up in people’s faces, which is absolutely to my tastes, but my preference is for the graven image, extreme clarity. In those moments of pause, the image is clear, but in the high-paced scenes, it’s almost a reversion to the queasy-cam (almost). More than that, it’s blurry, which is what reduces the queasiness—I’m not saying I’m consistent—but makes the scene impressionistic in a way I’m not ready for.
Anything I’ve complained about is a quibble. The performances are and writing is superlative and carries the movie to greatness. It isn’t an ‘instant classic’. It isn’t quite clever or brutal enough, which is what I associate with classics. But that’s the ambition of this movie. *I was about to draw parallels, but that would spoil it for you. So, sufficed to say, it is bringing out elements of classic movies that, now I think of it, are remarkably non-art house. This movie is between documentary and fantasy, but it’s also between art and entertainment. I guess we just call that independent now.
Go see it. If you can’t see it in theaters (which is likely because it’s limited release), keep it in your head for when the DVD comes out.