Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) – Review

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines is a moody character drama built on strong performances. The film is broken into three parts. The first deals with a motorcycle stunt rider (Luke) who turns to crime in order to try and provide for his family. Part two involves Avery, a rookie cop who is frustrated by the corruption in his department and his decision to do something about it. And, part three revolves around the children of Luke and Avery (Jason and AJ, respectively) and how their different backgrounds inform their present lives (taken place about fifteen years later) in the wake of the decisions their fathers’ made.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance seems to want to tell an epic tale of America – as the dramatic scope of this film is quite immense in terms of how many character-centric stories he fits in. There are four different main characters, each with their own dramatic narrative. Yet, scale wise the film is very small. The narratives are all localized to Schenectady, NY, and they each focus on the emotional turmoil and journey of the characters. It has a timeless quality to it as well – and really could have been set at any point in American history.

The film specifically feels like an American tale because, in addition to taking place in a typical American small town, it deals with the aspirations of its characters to seek out a better life for themselves (at least in regards to Luke, Avery, and Jason). Each has a specific want, and they pursue it – Luke wants to have a family (though somewhat naively) and take care of them financially so he begins robbing banks to make money (because he does not know another way); Avery is ambitious and somewhat arrogant in his on self-righteous vanity so he turns to ratting out other cops (which is always deemed a negative, when in some regard he is doing the right thing) so that he can forward his career (not seeing another way); and, Jason wants to know about his father (something that he needs to feel complete).

The character of AJ however is different. There is maybe a spark of ambition in him at the end, but he seems to be a comment on or the embodiment of the new generation of American entitlement – those that think they just deserve respect, money, power, and etcetera just for existing, which is very contradictory to the classic ‘America Dream’ narrative, to which almost all the other characters (good or bad) seem to prescribe (though, certainly there is a bit of this in Avery’s story as well). He is content to just be an ignorant young man, thinking things will just fall into place for him (and they very well might – depending on what his father does for him). This also reflects on the fact that his father is physically and emotional absent from his life. He does not have a role model to help shape his ambition so he turns to pop culture (which for him seems to be hip hop culture) – a poor choice, because by nature it is superficial.

AJ’s character also allows Cianfrance to comment on the class system in America. While Jason and AJ both attend the same high school – economically their parents lead very different lives. Cianfrance seems to identify much more with Jason and his family (his parents having to struggle to lead a decent life), as there is a certain level of detachment and even distain for what AJ’s family has become. Neither parent wants to deal with him, so they just leave him alone in Avery’s big expensive house, causing his feeling of entitlement and reliance on poor role models (them included).

Luke’s story sets in motion Avery’s, and Avery is too busy to raise his son properly. But what makes the film particularly powerful and interesting is that Cianfrance brings the narrative full circle, so to speak. Jason, whose pain is created by growing up without his real father (something Avery plays a role in as a cop), is the force that brings Avery and his son together ultimately – showing them how important they actually are to each other. Jason on the search for his father (who his father was) gives AJ his father. Thus, this really is a story of fathers and sons, and redemption.

Cianfrance aesthetically creates the world of the narrative to feel incredibly organic and real. Everything is steeped in realism – particularly the performances. There is not much action (with really only Luke’s bank-robbing escapades serving as ‘action’ sequences), nor does the narrative involve any grand schemes. Cianfrance just wants to look at these characters, leading fairly average lives – what drives them, what their fears are, what their hopes and dream are. His camera stays with the characters, maintaining a very intimate feel. He also does not rely on any narrative temporal tricks (which are overly commonplace in today’s narrative langue). He instead allows his epic to play out linearly, with faith that the performances and dramatic components will engage the audience throughout.

While for the most part the film does work very well, and is at times quite beautiful and moving, it does feel long as well. Cianfrance wants the film to have a very atmospheric/moody quality, and thus to achieve this it is also slow moving (as the narrative is not efficient in its storytelling). This is not overly detrimental, but certainly will cause some viewers to lose interest. The third part also does not play nearly as well as the first two dramatically (as the revenge narrative feels a bit out of place and exaggerated).

The Place Beyond the Pines is frustrating in a sense, because in moments it is a brilliant character piece that emotional engages its audience, while in others it loses it connection due to its lumbering pace and fumbling drama of part three (though, most of it is very good). However, for those willing to commit to the narrative, it is a fulfilling journey that, when it is at its best, is mesmerizing.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Derek Cianfrance, a few feature films into his career, has shown a great visual eye and sense of grandiose storytelling (whether that is a good thing or not, is a matter of opinion). I look forward to seeing what he does next, as he seems to have the makings of a great talent in American cinema.

Mike Patton’s score for the film, consisting mostly of atmospheric tones, works quite well – but Cianfrance is also overly reliant on it to emphasize the film’s moody tone. Sean Bobbitt’s photography is top notch, and maybe the most impressive aspect of the film. The opening shot especially is fantastic. The visual look, while muted and gritty, imposes a feel of realism. Inbal Weinberg’s production design is not flashy at all, nor was it meant to be – rather, he as well contributes to the overall realistic feel and look of the film.

The performances are paramount to The Place Beyond the Pines working, because Cianfrance has stripped pretty much everything else away. Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, and Ben Mendelsohn are all strong in supporting roles. Mendelsohn is however the standout performer (maybe of the whole film). Emory Cohen (playing AJ) is noticeably the weakest of the four characters that at different times take the lead, but he still is good enough to momentarily carry the film. Dane DeHaan (Jason) is good as he is able to show the internal pain that he has growing up without knowing his real father. Ryan Gosling is also very good as Luke. (While the performance does somewhat remind me of his work in Drive,) his work here is layered. He naively thinks that he can take care of his family, while also having this romantic view of his outlaw lifestyle (which again plays into this feeling like an American tale) – of course he is destined to be a tragic character. He feels emotionally childlike at times (screeching at bank tellers as he carries out a robbery). Bradley Cooper (building off his excellent work in Silver Linings Playbook) is wonderful in this as well playing Avery. He hits all the right emotional moments to make his character one that the audience can both root for and also kind of despise (it is hard to do that).

Summary & score: While The Place Beyond the Pines is flawed, its ambition and brilliant moments carry the day. 8/10

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