Mark Reviews Movies

The Place Beyond the Pines


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference)

Running Time: 2:20

Release Date: 3/29/13 (limited); 4/5/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 5, 2013

The point of The Place Beyond the Pines boils down to one scene and, more specifically, two words. It's the resolution of two generations' worth of lies and unspoken but sometimes understood secret, good intentions leading to poor decisions (and, perhaps at times, vice versa), sins of fathers passed down to their sons, and anger and resentment at whatever forces align to heap misery upon people simply trying to live their lives.

It cannot be as simple as that. After all the pain and suffering and guilt of these characters, it is simply unfair to them that screenwriters Ben Coccio, Darius Marder, and director Derek Cianfrance wrap up everything as neatly and cleanly as the movie's three-act structure, which follows two fathers separately in the first two acts and two sons in the third one. If it seems unfair to place so much weight on the movie's conclusion, it's important to keep in mind that it is explicitly the summation of everything that precedes it. The screenplay and Cianfrance may be interested in the actions and motivations of these characters, but they far more concerned with the Bigger Picture and What It All Means.

Any such attempt is almost always destined to disappoint, particularly one that so consciously places its pieces on the table, awaiting the moment when they will all come together. Here, the whole is far less satisfying than the sum of some of its parts.

The movie opens at an unspecified time in the past at a carnival in the city of Schenectady, New York. There, Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stoic motorcycle stunt rider with tattoos covering most of his torso, takes the long walk from his trailer to the tent where he's about to perform his nightly feats of derring-do. It's a long tracking shot from behind Luke's back that is partially intended to keep his face a mystery but primarily to display his calm sense of determination—his unfazed concentration on the task ahead of him. The shot continues unbroken as he mounts his bike and enters into a steel, spherical cage where he and two other riders spin in circles around and through each other. This is a man unafraid.

Of the four of the movie's protagonists, Luke shines the brightest in our memory. From the opening shot, Cianfrance affords him something of an iconic stature, and after that, the screenplay gradually unravels the character's layers. A woman named Romina (Eva Mendes) approaches him after his show. They knew each other—in the biblical sense, too—a year ago, and he rode out of town after their brief encounter. Now she reveals to him that she and he have a son. He's scheduled to leave the next day, but paternal responsibility holds him back. He quits the carnival and takes up a job at a local garage run by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn).

Romina has since moved on with her life. She lives with her boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who provides her, her son, and her mother (Olga Merediz) a home and financial stability. Luke wants to take care of this family he only recently discovered he had and shows, after Robin explains a foolproof plan for robbing banks, that he is willing to do so by any means necessary.

Gosling's performance as the wounded soul with pure ambitions, flawed judgment, and passion that could turn to tenderness or violence bubbling just beneath his cool façade anchors the first section and carries through as a phantom defining so many of the characters' actions in the other acts of the movie. His story, unfortunately, ends, and the screenplay picks up on the next logical thread. In it, Avery (Bradley Cooper), a patrol cop who by chance becomes entangled in the climax of Luke's story, must deal with the remorse of an action in the line of duty and the corruption of his fellow law enforcement officials.

Avery is a clean-as-a-whistle type with no flaw greater than that his professional ambitions currently exceed his grasp (The confusion over the details of an on-the-job shooting, strangely, is dropped immediately after one character questions the order of who shot first), and as such, he is less sympathetic than his predecessor. All of these protagonists are conflicted, but there's something inherently artificial about Avery's conflict. Whereas Luke struggles with his very nature, Avery's fight is more tangible and less involving.

Then the story makes a 20-year jump, and the passage of time highlights the passing of our emotional connection. It picks up on two teenagers—Avery's son (Dane DeHaan) and a loner (Emory Cohen)—who are indirectly connected by the past but find a present connection in their affinity for drugs.

Once one character realizes his place in the history of the story, The Place Beyond the Pines starts moving inexorably down a path of easy resolution, one way or another. It comes down to a choice between holding on to the past to one's own destruction and letting go of it for acceptance. It's ultimately less a matter of fate than it is of manipulation.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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