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.