Monday, April 1, 2013

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES Is An Ambitious Genre-Mashup


- The Place Beyond the Pines is one of those films that I'd easily recommend that any real film fan check out asap, but also one that I had some reservations with. It's frustrating, because the movie is admirably ambitious, features some incredible performances, and has certain sequences that are truly memorable. But it's also a movie that feels like it's overreaching a bit, halting its own momentum with a clunky structure and a number of plot points and twists that feel contrived. There is greatness in this film, but it's weighted down by a number of elements that just don't quite work. Still, it's easily worth watching as an interesting and discussion-provoking film - an example of a movie that has a lot on its mind, but can't quite articulate it all in a cohesive and fluid fashion.

This is a film, primarily, about fathers and sons. From Derek Cianfrance, the guy behind Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines has a similar moody darkness that permeates throughout. It's also a hard movie to talk about without giving away major spoilers, so bear with me as I try to talk around any major plot points. I will say this though: in my opinion, the first third of this film is incredible. If the film had simply stuck to its initial narrative, expanded it, filled in some of the gaps, and called it a day, I think we'd be looking at a possible Oscar contender. But Cianfrance isn't necessarily interested in telling that sort of story. Instead, he divides the film into three distinct but interconnected segments, with each segment completely shifting its focus to a different set of characters. And unfortunately, the film seems to lose momentum each time a new segment begins.

To back up though, the first segment is an amazing piece of filmmaking. It features Ryan Gosling as Luke, a down-on-his-luck drifter circa 1990 or so. Luke, perpetually sporting a tattered Metallica t-shirt, feels like a slightly de-mystified version of Gosling's character from Drive. He's a loner, a vagabond who makes end's meat by working as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival. One day, however, while at a show in upstate NY, Luke runs into a woman, Romina (Eva Mendes) who he'd had a brief fling with a year prior. Luke discovers that Romina has a son - it's his - and Luke becomes determined to force his way into Romina and their child's life (despite Romina shacking up with another man and wanting little to do with him). But Luke is persistent. He quits the carnival and gets a job working for a burnout mechanic named Robin (an amazing Ben Mendelsohn). Eventually, Robin convinces Luke to partner with him to rob banks. Luke goes along with it, and becomes quite good at it to boot. And so a classic sort of story begins to unfold - the kind that will be familiar to fans of Breaking Bad. Even as Luke finds something he's good at, his life of crime creates two problems for every problem it solves, and even as he enjoys success, it's only a matter of time until the other shoe drops.

Man ... this initial segment with Gosling is so well done - it had me captivated. From a visual perspective, the entire first third is incredibly shot. The heist sequences are gritty, visceral, ultra-intense. Other scenes have a moody, foreboding, neon-lit film noir atmosphere. And Gosling, Mendes, and Mendelsohn are absolutely at the top of their games. Gosling brings the same sort of quiet intensity that he brought to Drive, and delivers a powerful, magnetic performance. Mendes is at her best, world-weary yet ever so slightly curious about the mystery man who's come back into her life. And Mendelsohn is wonderful - funny, charismatic, and memorable as a ne'er do well small-time hood who sees Luke as his ticket back to the bigtime. The absorbing characters, the top-flight performances, and the visually-stunning direction make this first segment positively electric. As the segment culminated in a shocking chase scene (as we are introduced, on the fly, to Bradley Cooper as the driven cop Avery Cross), I was on the edge of my seat, and my jaw was on the floor as the screen faded to black.

But that is only the first of three segments. In the second segment, the focus switches to Cooper's character, who we learn is also the father of a young son. The tone of the film switches - no longer a neo-noir, the look and feel of the movie takes on the stylings of a procedural cop drama. The film adopts a more drab, more dull look. And the story, while compelling, lacks the all-or-nothing drama of Luke's tale. As it turns out, Cooper seems to be one of the few good cops in his precinct - hailed as a hero cop following an on-patrol injury, Cross seems to be a sort of white knight figure - especially in contrast to the corrupt, racist lawman played by Ray Liotta. But as the story progresses, we begin to see that Cross is partly motivated by altruism, but also partly by an aggressively political streak. Cross may not be as inherently corrupt as his colleagues, but he's got a survivalist instinct that makes him dangerous. Similar to Luke, we see how Cross makes a series of decisions that come, initially, from a pure place, but that end up becoming corrosive and corrupting.

The movie's middle section is carried by a great performance from Bradley Cooper - right up there with his work in Silver Linings Playbook. It's nice to see Cooper continue his streak of fantastic performances - and even more impressive, he's very much playing against type here - Cross is quiet, measured, carefully masking his motives with a mild-mannered demeanor. Liotta is also characteristically excellent - scary and imposing. But while the story works well in and of itself, it unravels a bit as it becomes apparent how Cianfrance wants it to connect thematically with the first segment. The ways that Cross' story mirrors Luke's - they don't quite hold up to scrutiny. And there starts to be a contrivance to the way that Cross keeps running into characters from Luke's story. Cianfrance is going for a "we're all connected" vibe, but as that increasingly becomes what the movie is about, it comes off less as profound and more as stretching.

And it feels like stretching to the breaking point when the film gets into its third and final segment. I won't spoil what this segment is about, but it continues Luke and Cross' story in an interesting, but ultimately forced-feeling manner. The highlight is, easily, Dane DeHaan (who was great in last year's CHRONICLE), playing Jason - a high school outcast. DeHaan does some fantastic work here, but it's offset a bit by the extremely over-the-top performance of Emory Cohen as AJ, a friend/rival of Jason's. This may be one of those love-it-or-hate-it things, but Cohen's performance in the film - where he seems to be trying to channel the ghost of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire - really took me out of the film. It was just too much - too cartoonish, too weird. And the backstory of his character - which has some major gaps and makes little sense - is also an issue. And so this third segment - which is essentially a mini high school coming-of-age drama - is easily the film's weakest. As Cianfrance attempts to tie up his ambitious saga in a bow, it collapses a bit under its own weight. There's two much we as an audience must blindly accept for it all to work, and the jumpiness of the narrative ends up hurting rather than helping the film.

And yet ... the last ten minutes or so of the film are quite strong, and function as a moving, memorable, and iconic epilogue to the first segment. It really made me wish that the movie had focused on Gosling's Luke, kept Cooper's Cross as a side character/rival, and perhaps featured a short epilogue with DeHaan's Jason. The ambitious structure, ultimately, makes the movie feel less fluid and much more clunky than it might have been otherwise. Like I said, it's frustrating, because I feel like the movie has all the ingredients to be a masterpiece. And for the first forty minutes or so, I was convinced I was watching a classic unfold. It's a great cautionary tale about how to tell (or perhaps not to tell) this sort of generation-spanning saga (and who knows, perhaps the story would have been better served as a TV miniseries). As is, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a movie overflowing with incredible scenes and moments and performances. This is in many ways a must-see, because the film's best moments will likely be, at the end of the day, some of the best of any movie this year. It just, sadly, doesn't quite come together as it should. But ... what is there is well worth taking in, flaws and all.

My Grade: B+

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