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The Place Beyond the Pines: An engrossing fathers-and-sons triptych

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It’s been a week since I saw writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, and I’ve been puzzling out how he created such an immersive film ever since. With my notebook and constant (over) analysis, I tend to watch and deconstruct movies at the same time. But this film pulled me under fast, leaving me to figure out why after the lights came up.

Cianfrance’s background is the first clue: Documentaries outweigh fiction on his resume, though he’s most well-known for 2010’s heartbreaker Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The non-fiction practices of gathering moments as they happen and storytelling by way of context (as opposed to highly constructed dialogue) served The Place Beyond the Pines well. We get to know these characters by their clothes (oft unflattering), their houses, their sad tattoos, how they move, how others react to them. And in a story that unfolds over almost two decades, we only see the needed moments. There’s no fat to distract, only one loaded look,  layered interaction or can’t-be-unmade decision after another.

Secondly, the performances are superb. Across the board, the stars of The Place Beyond the Pines  “are” instead of “act.” A master of embodying empathetic characters, Ryan Gosling works his magic here, snaking sympathy out of the impulsive, violent Luke. Eva Mendes gives Romina, the mother of Luke’s son, convincing layers. Emory Cohen (AJ) and Dane DeHann (Jason) electrify the film’s third act with nuanced portraits of young men masking angst with bravado. (If you saw Dane DeHann in Chronicle or Lawless, you know he’s one to watch; his intensity reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s early work.)  One moment I remember being pulled out of the film was to think, “Welcome back, Bradley Cooper.” (I’m sure he’s so relieved to return to the favor of this small-potatoes blogger!) Unlike my contrarian frustration with his performance in Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper impresses here as the conflicted, ambitious Avery.

Finally, The Place Beyond the Pines mesmerizes with its story’s proportionate consequences. In contrast to Hollywood’s preponderance of reaction-less actions, this film has a believable sense of moral physics. The story watches Luke, Avery and, finally, AJ and Jason make the most important decisions of their lives. Luke and Avery both long to do the right thing, but struggle to keep that impulse pure. The results of the characters’ choices feel real and inarguable…and they propel the film forward. Yes, forward. While it would have been fashionable to tell this multi-generational story out of order, Cianfrance’s linear narrative makes wrong-choice penalties feel rightly inescapable…and motion toward redemption that much more hopeful.

I highly recommend you get lost in The Place Beyond the Pines‘ inevitable brand of storytelling.

What film have you been lost in recently?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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0 comments on “The Place Beyond the Pines: An engrossing fathers-and-sons triptych”

  1. Wow – I completely want to see this now. Really intrigued about the influence of his background in documentaries.

    And yay for the return of Bradley Cooper. I still need convincing on him… :)

  2. I just saw a trailer for this while I was at the gym this morning and immediately told my husband we needed to see it. Great review!

  3. Nice review. Totally agree with you regarding performances & Bradley Cooper.

    One thing I loved was the sound design. Completely immersive in the settings. The “background” was foreground, often competing with the dialog, causing one to lean forward slightly, as if that will help… The carnival sounds, motorcycle blasts, and blaring party music were some of my favorite parts of the film.

    I do agree with your analysis of the consequences of the characters’ choices. Unfortunately, about half- if not more – of those choices I found illogical or at least unjustified. I kept thinking, the only reason this character is doing this is because the movie needs something to happen now – not because of any character-driven motivation or desire.

    The worst thing for me – and I really wish I didn’t feel this way – but after the midpoint I just stopped caring. Won’t discuss why in detail, but I’m sure you can surmise. I found Gosling’s character so original and captivating. Though Cooper did a fantastic job, I just wasn’t all that interested in knowing more about his story.

    Good one to discuss!

    • I’ve never seen a movie like it, the three ‘chapters’ and chronology kind of blew my mind. I was totally engrossed and time seemed to pass far more slowly than the just-over-two-hours, but in a good way. Also liked Cooper for the first time ever.

      I do agree with David that certain choices seemed illogical or unjustified. I compare Jason’s actions with Julie Taylor from Friday Night Lights, if you will. :) She acts out in ways that just don’t make any sense or have any foundation per her upbringing. I mean, come on!!
      (Toby told me I had to put extra spaces after I wrote “spoiler alert”)
      Granted, we don’t know what happened in those 15 years of Jason’s life, but the fact that he had just learned about his father and all of a sudden turned murderous seemed totally unlikely. Does my inability to critique the movie without giving a spoiler reveal my lack of film interpretation skills? Maybe.


      Also who was the person who criticized the Bon Iver song during the closing credits? I remember I was in that conversation recently but can’t remember who it was with!! It was perfect.

      Overall, unbelievably good film and great review.

    • Good job with the SPOILER space. I always forget to to that.


      I think I found Jason’s actions more believable. He wasn’t a little angel to begin with (he knew right where to go to get drugs, for example), and it was established that he was a loner early on. I inferred his past from his actions, but, yeah, his stepdad seems like such a stand-up guy that you wonder how Jason turned out so troubled. Then again, I’ve known plenty of troubled kids with just-fine parents, and the other way around, too. I liked that in this movie, the actions led. We learn about the characters from their actions, not learn about their context then see their actions.


      Hmmmm….trying to remember about who criticized the Bon Iver song, too. It definitely wasn’t me. Got goosebumps with the first chords then stayed through all the credits, of course.

    • ALL OF THIS IS A SPOILER***********

      The most glaring one for me was when the mechanic guy chopped Gosling’s motorbike in half. A. Are you insane? Gosling is going to bash your brains in or worse! It didn’t seem to be that desperate of a situation. B. Gosling can buy a new bike. Which he does. So the guy put his own life at risk for something that in no way will remotely stop Gosling from robbing more banks. Purely illogical. Purely a plot device because the movie was shambling toward a dead end.

      That beat flipped the critical mindset switch for me. Then when Gosling died I was like, YAWN. Then when Cooper & Gosling’s sons just happen to become friends on DAY 1 of the school transfer…EYE-ROLL. The wobbly house of cards just tumbled for me.

    • I think they set up the mechanic being pretty crazy to begin with, so that one didn’t both me. And if they didn’t meet at school, it wouldn’t be a story, right? I know you just are really, really sad any time Gosling dies in a movie, and I can totally sympathize with that ; )

    • Great point about the sound design; that’s probably another element in the movie’s engross-ability. I agree that I liked the Gosling-focused section the most…maybe this should have been a trilogy, and then you could have skipped parts 2 and 3!

  4. Wonderful review Sarah! This one had me unsettled and puzzled…I love that you worked that out into some concrete answers!

    I also felt like it had a slow, matter of fact pace that did not garner points towards entertainment value, but certainly won it points for artistic depth and implied meaning.

    I thought DeHann gave the best performance in the movie, and also thought of DiCaprio. I would have liked to see a little more screen time for Mendez.

    • Yeah, what time Mendez had, she used! Thought she communicated her character’s conflicted feelings really well.

  5. I love how much you articulated without giving a single thing away! As one who hasn’t yet seen this but wants to — I am now more intrigued without any of the mystery being yet stripped!

  6. Great review of a pretty great movie. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was how gangster the privileged son acts. The accent in particular seemed like a costume he was putting on, but maybe that’s an accurate East Coast portrayal.

    • Yeah, they had the boys address his accent a little in conversation, but it still didn’t make sense to me, either!