The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)
De Niro & Scorsese, Ford & Wayne, Mifune & Kurosawa, Carpenter & Russell, Gosling & Cianfrance – it doesn’t quite trip off the tounge does it? These masculine pairings have benchpressed a weighty and sturdy cinema, obsessed with stoic notions and very serious gender studies, the director /actor intertwinning to explore notions of duty, honour, heroism and masculinity through the forum of film. With the scintillating fireworks of 2010’s Blue Valentine Derek Cianfrance delivered a powerful and attention worthy debut, coaxing tremulous performances from both his leading lady Michelle Williams and the rising major star in the ascendant Ryan Gosling, with whom he has once again blood brothered with The Place Beyond The Pines, his sophomore movie. The reviews have been somewhat mixed on this one but some major critics have lathered on the praise, and with very little else circulating last weekend I thought I’d give it a chance, and try to discern what’s been hidden out in that petrified forest. What I found wasn’t particularly egregious but I can’t bring myself to fully recommend the film, like Gosling’s tear streaked facial tattoos this is a film which grasps for a solemn scarred profundity, and ultimately comes of as a little cheap and pretentious – just like my aftershave.
You’ll forgive me if I’m vague with the summary as the plot roars into unexpected directions quite early on, but as you can glean from the trailer Ryan Gosling is back in smouldering and strong slash quiet type armour, as the locally recognised circus stunt driver Luke. A brief tryst with local waitress Romina (Eva Mendes) results in an unplanned son which he promises to support and not abandon like his presumably vanished father, Luke only learning of his brood once the circus rolls into town a few months after the boy is born. Work is hard to find however and after teaming with local grease monkey / low rent criminal Roger (Ben Mendelsohn) Luke takes to robbing banks and utilising his driving skills to evade the law, with a taste for excitement that grows with each infraction the road seems certain to run out beneath him before he can swerve back to the right path. Meanwhile local cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) is having some problems of his own, as a recent graduate he finds himself in a force mired in corruption and naked self-interest, with good ole Ray Liotta as the plain clothes ringleader with the eyes of rattlesnake. His imposing father Al Cross (Harris Yulin) as the local judge is urging his son to follow in his ambitious footsteps, and after a politically expedient incident the potential road to the DA’s post slowly becomes a possibility, even if he wants to forge his own path.Both Luke and Avery have newly born sons, and the intertwining of their destinies will forge future enmities and feuds, as the reveberations of their choices and sacrifices reverberate throughout the generations….
This frustrating film has an arc which strives for the spectrum of greek tragedy, with fathers inheriting the sins of their creators and passing these burdens on to their progeny, with a decade spanning narrative which at once seems surprisingly ambitious yet implausibly ludicrous. It’s not a bad film per se, Gosling as always is a magnetic presence with a performance sketched of quiet volcanic glares and tics and nuances, all cobbled together from Drive’s cutting room floor. Despite being the most sleazy man alive I always enjoy absorbing the languid drawls of Ben Mendelsohn, and Bradley Cooper completes the three act structure / three performance triptych with a convincing as a cop wrestling with his competing instincts of patriarchal duty and sense of moral authority. The problem lies at a structural level beneath its snowy canopy, as Cianfrance’s script and design never quite scales the peaks of its solemn inotations, although one can and should celebrate the noble intentions of an epic emotional sweep and studious pondering on the human condition, as these are increasingly neglected areas in star studded vehicles.
I did like the score from Faith No More’s Mike Patton, again it anxiously grasps for some sort of wintry romantici sm by incorporating flurries of the choirsh crescendos of Arvo Pärt’s minimalist 1977 classical composition Fratres – now there’s a sentence which could probably do with a trim, just the film two and a half hour duration. When I say the film has a three act structure I’m not referring to the usual screenwriting parlance of inciting incidents, of clearly defined protagonists and antagonists, of specific plot developments being punched into the plot at specific points in the run-time which so clearly formulates and homogenizes American cinema – no, I’m taking about three definitive portions of time that the film ponderous gaits through, and a major problem is by the time you’re in the final act it actually feels superfluous to the preceding movements when exactly the opposite reaction should be occurring. When an audience is as tired and restless as mine was when you know you’ve got another thirty or forty minutes to sit through you’ve seriously failed in spinning an emotional web, although on a craft level – performance, cinematography, sound, production design – the film can’t be faulted. It’s a shame after that blistering debut as Cianfrance evidently has talent, so one hopes that wasn’t a one hit wonder (paging Richard Donne Darko Kelly?) and that his next project doesn’t get similarly buried in the woods;
A quick aside, as I’m professionally obligated to salute the passing of Philip French’s extraordinarily productive career, he announced his retirement this week after fifty years in the aisle seat, I mean c’mon Philip – nobody likes a quitter. I saw him at the BFI Vertigo screening last year, I’m betting that I won’t look as spiretly and energetic after fifty years of movie reviewing. Here’s his interesting if a tad conventional list of all time favourites, but anyone who shares my affection for the top spot can’t be all wrong.