MOVIE REVIEW: The Place Beyond the Pines

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THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES-- 5 STARS

Plenty of movie snobs will say that "they don't make movies like they used to."  They will call today's movies "over-produced" and "under-performed."  Like every ranter who really knows the old days, they are always right.  Few movies today don't employ some kind of digital touch-up, whether it's big-time effects, total CGI characters, or beefing up the matte backgrounds of simple places for added scope.  Along the same lines, few actors and actresses today come from any traditional training like the generation before them.  Most are pretty faces plucked from magazines, runways, or the internet.  Times have changed from the raw, meditative opuses that made up the famed "New Hollywood" movement of the 1970's that was kicked off by 1967's Bonnie and Clyde.

Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Terrance Malick, Woody Allen, Philip Kaufman, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Cimino, Norman Jewison, Brian De Palma, John Boorman, and a young Steven Spielberg bucked the old 1950's standards of perky mainstream movie entertainment to deliver challenging, adult-themed, and character-driven films that changed the landscape and broke down boundaries.  Few of those listed filmmakers are still working regularly and some are no longer within us at all (Altman, Kubrick, Lumet).

Some, like Scorsese and Spielberg, have changed with the times and embraced the modern technologies to still tell their stories today that please the masses.  Forgiving critics will call Spielberg and Scorsese "evolved" while harsher ones will label them as "sellouts."  Most, like Malick and Allen in particular who are still working regularly, seemed to have never left that era and have always kept on making movies in old style.  They get labeled either "throwback" (Allen) or "lost in the past" (Malick).  For a great many movie traditionalists, their "New Hollywood" movement was the greatest era in film history and few younger filmmakers since have come close to that kind of raw, creative, and character-driven cinema akin to that era.

Enter Derek Cianfrance, whose last film, the difficult and sharply poignant Blue Valentine from 2010, could have fit right into that "New Hollywood" era of forty years ago.  That film breathed a palpable, raw, domestic emotion surrounding a failing marriage (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) intertwined with the flashbacks of their lovely courtship that few over-produced movies today get right.  Building off that solid start, reuniting with Gosling, and bringing his storytelling to an ever larger scale than before, Cianfrance's latest film,The Place Beyond the Pines, is nothing short of a modern masterpiece.  Brimming with more of that palpable emotion and wrought with ever-increasing tension, tragedy, triumph, and importance, The Place Beyond the Pinesis the first great film of 2013 and better than just about every movie this critic reviewed in 2012.

This exquisite film is a triptych of three very different chapters.  The first section covers "Handsome" Luke Glanton (a mesmerizing Gosling), introduced in a showy single-take tracking shot as a tattooed and cigarette-breathing motorcycle stuntman for a traveling carnival in the mid-1990's.  With his traveling rebel lifestyle (the red James Dean-ish show jacket hits the right note), Luke is probably the kind of guy with a "girl in every port" but little real love in his life to live for.  When his act returns to the sleazy hamlet of Schenectady, New York (which loosely translates into the film's title from the Mohawk Native American dialect), one of his past flings, the lovely Romina (Eva Mendes, now Gosling's real-life squeeze), reveals that he has fathered her child, a son named Jason.

This news acts as a kick of morality to the transient and volatile Luke Glanton.  He quits the carnival to stay in Schenectady and attempts to be an honest providing father to Romina and the boy, despite her already having a steady man (Mahershala Ali from Predators and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) taking care of her.  When ends don't meet financially, Luke gets enticed by a former crook-turned-local-mechanic named Robin (Australian chameleon actor Ben Mendelsohn, who's everywhere lately with The Dark Knight Rises and Killing Them Softly) to try robbing a bank.  Taking Luke under his wing, Robin encourages him to use his motorcycle skills and coolness under pressure to make speedy and successful getaways.

When Luke becomes this dashing criminal, the storytelling baton is passed to Avery Cross, played by Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, for the film's second chapter.  Avery is a rookie cop on the Schenectady police force, a law school graduate, and the son of a judge who becomes a hero pursuing Glanton.  He too is a new father of a son, A.J., together with his worried wife Jennifer (Bridesmaids's Rose Byrne).  After becoming a hero, Avery can't shake the experience and his own renewed morality to confront the corruption within the Schenectady Police Department, embodied by Ray Liotta and his not-so-savory peers.  This quest climbs Avery up the heroic ladder more while adding political clout with the local district attorney (Bruce Greenwood).

The third chapter is the wildcard of The Place Behind the Pines.  When one narrative door closes, another one opens fifteen years later to showcase both Luke and Avery's grown sons as teenagers who cross paths in high school.  A.J. (newcomer Emory Cohen) has become a silver spoon wannabe bully.  Jason (the outstanding Dane DeHaan of Chronicle, Lawless, Lincoln, and the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man sequel) has grown into a shy, direction-less loner.  The impact their respective fathers had (or did not have) on their different lives is what ties the film together and gives it depth beyond most other father/son morality plays.  To say more would jeopardize the impact of the experience and spoil a few twists and turns.

While he's only a little bit in "hey girl" charm mode, Ryan Gosling absolutely nails the necessary melodramatic edge between sanity and insanity for this kind of character.  He convincingly spans the range from the repentant sense of responsibility as a new father to the daredevil adrenaline rush of his criminal side.  This role as Luke is worlds more tangible than his overrated tough guy from Drive.  

While it's sometimes easy to grow tired of Gosling's mumbly minimally-emotive Brando-esque act, it works in spades in The Place Beyond the Pines.  Eva Mendes is better playing understated in this film than she's ever been with all her glamour in other box office flicks.  While Cooper doesn't get to fly off his own handle here as the "white hat" compared to his Oscar-nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook, his steady presence and equal moral challenges act as a perfect foil to Gosling's bandit.  Lastly, newcomer Dane DeHaan continues to comport himself like a real talent.  He gets far too many unfair Leonardo DiCaprio comparisons based on his youthful look, but the kid has an incredible approach-ability and range of his own.  As was previously-discussed on this website, DeHaan is a breakout star waiting in the wings.

Similar to the great films of that "New Hollywood" movement, The Place Beyond the Pines has a minimalistic bare-bones tone, but an intentional direction of realism and intimacy.  It has elements of melodramas, crime sagas, westerns, and film noir, but never settles or focuses on just one path.  Our characters live lives of emotion and conversation, not diatribes and scripted monologues echoing some fake bigger picture in mind.  No costume is too flashy to take away from any character.  No small-town setting comes across like a Hollywood backlot creation.  No soundtrack choice or musical score cue overwhelms a scene like a bad TV montage (take seemingly every episode of Grey's Anatomy and the insufferable episode-finishing voiceover/montage set to an alt-rock ballad).

Predominantly composed by former alternative rock frontman Mike Patton of Faith No More with a brief ethereal splash of old-school Ennio Morricone's "Ninna Nanna Per Adulteri" and Bon Iver covering the end credits, there's another layer of poetry and allusion just in the music.  The camera work of up-and-coming British cinematographer Sean Bobbitt effortlessly flows from the kinetic handheld heist scenes to the speed of keeping up with the chases and the right reactionary angle for the moments of introspection.  For lack of a better description, the "polish" of a movie like this is to look unpolished.  Each stylistic choice evokes the grounded realism and intimacy that separates a film like this from being a Lifetime movie on the low end or an overproduced star vehicle on the other end.

Much like the balanced flashback nature of Blue Valentine, Cianfrance's boldness to take on a story with this unique three-part framework is sheer brilliance.  While it clocks in a nearly two-and-a-half hours, the portions fit together and are chiseled into streamlined sculptures.  In different hands, The Place Beyond the Pines would meander with disconnect and uneven favoritism or be taken too far into poetic wandering for a third hour.  Under Cianfrance, each chapter carries an undeniable weight, importance, build-up, and impact.  While there are common father-and-son themes that span across all three chapters (see the lessons below), each piece presents it in a different enough way to never feel repetitive or overbearing.  If Derek Cianfrance's screenplay, created with partners Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is not up for Oscar this coming year, more than just bank robbery is taking place.

When each part is combined together, the ambition pays off to create an engrossing scope of flawed Americana among the strong connective threads.  The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie of dramatic strength that sticks with you after the credits roll.  Think of The Deer Hunter with an editor and a greater sense of personal message.  Derek Cianfrance could probably teach his "New Hollywood" predecessors (like the endlessly meandering Terrance Malick) a thing or two about honing poetry combined with substance in efficient filmmaking and storytelling.  The grand success of The Place Beyond the Pines is highly worthy of notice and appreciation by any audiences.  If we didn't pay attention to this talent at work before, we certainly will now.

LESSON #1: FATHERS AND SONS SHARING TRAITS-- There are multitudes of life lessons all over the domestic drama scenarios embedded in The Place Beyond the Pines, but this section of the review will narrow the lessons to three spoiler-free topics, just as the film was divided into three acts.  Care will be taken not to reveal too much.  Sorting through the tangents, more than anything else, The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerful, multi-layered discourse on fathers and sons.  We all know the school of thought that plays the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" card when it comes to fathers and sons.  From the cosmically accidental to the in-the-flesh similarities, sons are often doomed or blessed to share the same traits as their fathers.  Much is on display between the very different, but not-so-different Luke and Avery.

LESSON #2: FATHERS AND SONS SHARING SINS-- Kind of like the balance of an evening news telecast, bad news grabs more interest than good news.  By that same rationale and continuing from Lesson #1, the dooms will always get more attention than the blessings.  Sons will always hear more about the sins and negatives they share with their fathers over the good things.  One of the overarching questions laid out before us for our edification in The Place Beyond the Pines is whether or not fathers and sons can share the same sins.  Is a son cursed by who or what their father was?  Is one upbringing better than another?  This story tugs at that difficult morality.

LESSON #3: FATHERS AND SONS SHARING FATES-- Traits are natural and correctable.  Sins can be avoided and forgiven.  However, it is an entirely deeper issue if fathers and sons are found to share the same fate.  Fate and destiny are sometimes sealed things that cannot be avoided.  Above traits and sins, fates are infinitely more difficult to avoid.  There are definitely a few points in The Place Beyond the Pines where we see sealed fates and changed fates come to the forefronts of our characters.  These three father-son dynamics and lessons go way beyond the whole "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" idiom.  Far greater and far deeper connections are at work in this film.