NOTE: This review was first published on September 8, 2012 after I saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it today as it opens in theaters this weekend.
The Place Beyond the Pines leaves you tired and worn weary by as it revels in despair with no hope at the end of the tunnel. It’s raw, real, downtrodden and forced. Is it good? It’s solid. It’s also too much of a “bad” thing.
This is a drama that weighs on you like a ton of bricks as generations are affected by those before them — the things they know; the things they don’t know and what they’ll soon learn. Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance exhibits his talent to tackle a sweeping narrative that runs all of two hours and 20 minutes, and the film’s length is felt as a result of the weary state it leaves you in by the end.
The story begins in the late 1990s, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcyclist for a traveling carnival. During a stop in Schenectady, New York we learn of a one night encounter he had with a local waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes). Seeing her again for the first time since, they exchange words and he drives her home, but with the carnival heading out of town he can’t stay for long. He leaves.
A little over a year later, back in town, Luke learns Romina has had a child and is living with her mother and another man (Mahershala Ali). The child is Luke’s, and despite what appears to be a lack of want for his company, he quits his job and takes up a low-paying mechanic position locally in an attempt to reconnect and raise his child. Volatility ensues.
Cash-strapped, Luke turns to robbing local banks for money, but his crimes soon catch up to him as his path becomes entwined with a local cop (Bradley Cooper) and a brief moment of violence shapes the next 15 years of their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Cianfrance, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, examines the effects one generation can have on the other and the results of a child’s neglected upbringing with an unflinching eye. This is the film’s over-arching theme, and it’s as a result of this theme the film is so punishing, because Cianfrance doesn’t lighten the mood with glossy Hollywood techniques that would make it far more accessible, but would also diminish its dramatic impact.
It’s always tough for me to come to a definitive conclusion on how I feel about a film when it leaves me walking away feeling numb. It’s one of the reasons grading movies is so meaningless. I wouldn’t want to watch this film again. To feel how I felt watching it would be pointless to repeat. There are no happy endings in The Place Beyond the Pines. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a smile, outside of a folded picture that continues to show its face throughout, constantly reminding us of the film’s singular best moment.
The narrative breeds corruption, in more ways than one, making it both disheartening and painful to watch. Some of this can be attributed to a screenplay that has a hard time finding any measure of hope or optimism, all leading to a finale that really doesn’t add up to much at all. Where the film does succeed, once you accept its narrative, is in the performances that hold it together.
Gosling continues on his streak of powerful performances as Luke attempts to fight the beast within and do the right thing, but the struggle is simply too much as he takes on more than his life experience can handle. Cooper is decent in a performance that largely ties together the film’s three act structure, bridging the gap from one to the next, serving as a narrative glue. Gosling, as would be expected, is the standout while Cooper is workmanlike.
Strong supporting performances also work to the film’s benefit. Ben Mendelsohn, who is having a solid year already with his wonderful contributions to Killing Them Softly, plays the man that may be Luke’s only friend. Dane DeHaan, who is best known currently as the lead actor in Chronicle, shows his career won’t be limited to the second-rate, low-budget superpower genre, and Bruce Greenwood gives a very strong performance as District Attorney, Bill Killcullen.
Sean Bobbit, who put in strong camera work in Steve McQueen’s Shame and Hunger, delivers yet again with a gritty and intense bit of cinematography and strong camera movements in tight spaces including an especially intense scene following Luke as he speeds through the trees. Bobbit gives the small town of Schenectady a life of its own, as well as the people living in it.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a case of a tough, but predictable narrative. I wasn’t the fan of Blue Valentine so many others were, but it did showcase Cianfrance’s ability to not only bring the best out of his actors, but to tackle tough subject matter and deliver a raw sense of reality. He does that again here, but, like Blue Valentine, I’m having a hard time giving the film a wholehearted endorsement.
The exploration of tragic lives in tragic environments is one thing, but to wallow in it as Cianfrance seems to enjoy doing is tough to swallow and what exactly he’s trying to accomplish here isn’t entirely clear, and the generational thread he’s pushing can only be tugged on for so long before the quilt it holds together is withered and frayed.