Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

Director: Derek Cianfrance                              Writers: Derek Cianfrance & Ben Coccio
Film Score: Mike Patton                                 Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendez and Bruce Greenwood

The Place Beyond the Pines is the meaning of the Native American word Schenectady, the town just northeast of Albany in upstate New York. At first it seems an interesting but nondescript title for a film. That is, until about halfway through the film when the viewer realizes that the film is less about characters than it is about a place and the people who inhabit it. Director Derek Cianfrance comes from a documentary background and it shows in this film. The camera follows along behind the characters, similar to the style that Darren Aronofsky used in The Wrestler, a handheld cinéma vérité that doesn’t seem to really mesh with this particular story. In attempting to let the characters’ actions speak for themselves it leaves a little too much to the imagination of the viewer. His style has been called elliptical, and it is that, but not to good effect here. The film has a haunting quality, but seems as if he could have done so much more with the idea than he did.

Ryan Gosling plays a carnival daredevil, part of a motorcycle act in which three riders get inside a steel-mesh ball and ride around without hitting each other like the inside of a gyroscope. When Eva Mendez shows up it’s clear they’ve had a relationship but she acts like she’s fine without him and it makes him curious. When Gosling comes over to her house the next night he discovers she had his baby the year before. It seems obvious to him that Mendez isn’t particularly happy about it, and he has an intense desire to spend time with his son, so he quits the carnival and stays in Schenectady. While out riding his motorcycle in the woods he meets Ben Mendelsohn who owns a garage and hires him. But he has an ulterior motive. In order to get enough cash to support his son, Mendelsohn tells Gosling that he can rob banks with him if he wants to make some serious money. At first Gosling balks, but then decides to try it. He makes it quick and dirty, getting as much money as he can in a short time. Then he only has to ride a few blocks up into Mendelsohn’s step-van, and when the door closes behind him the cops ride right by and have no idea.

But things are just getting started in this tense drama. Mendez is already living with Mahershala Ali and living with her mother in his house. But Gosling wants more, stopping by when they aren’t home to be with his son, and an altercation with Ali leads to his arrest for assault, a break with Mendelsohn, and suddenly the film is skidding in a completely different direction toward Bradley Cooper, a rookie cop who winds up injured in the line of duty. The district attorney, Bruce Greenwood, is suspicious about the whole incident, but gives him a way out and he takes it by lying. Then his police brothers, led by Ray Liotta, take him along to steal some money from criminals and pay him his share. Then, when he’s reassigned to the evidence locker he is suddenly in a position where he can’t refuse those same police brothers who want to steal drugs and other things. Corrupted now, he suddenly has a crisis of conscience about his whole life’s work and makes some decisions that are no more well thought-out than the one that led him to get shot. But he makes it work. The real payoff to the film, however, comes fifteen years later in an interesting if unsatisfying way.

One of the regretful things about modern dramas is that screenwriters today are content to rehash plots that have been done to death already. The only originality that they exhibit is in how they recombine these old ideas in unique ways. Is that enough? It’s difficult to say. But there certainly is something compelling about the film regardless. Ryan Gosling plays his strong, silent character, brooding intensely throughout the film. Bradley Cooper is a little more compelling here, his personal life intersecting with his professional life in a way he never expected. The biggest disappointment in the film, however, is the complete misuse of the female characters. Eva Mendez has almost nothing to do in the film in terms of character, and the same goes for Cooper’s wife, Rose Byrne. They cry or emote on cue and have almost no meaningful dialogue. To be fair, neither do the men, but then the film is about them, including the final act of the story which features Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen as Gosling and Cooper’s sons in high school. The entire cast is very good, but they can’t make up for a screenplay that is just too subjective to draw in the viewer completely. The Place Beyond the Pines has some nice things going for it, the setting in particular, and the plot is an emotionally moving story such as it is. I can’t call it a bad film, simply a flawed one, and one whose merits must ultimately be decided by the individual viewer.

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