Monday, December 16, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: R  

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                             **Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Major Plot Points**  

Almost halfway through The Place Beyond the Pines a title card appears on the screen that reads: 15 YEARS LATER. It's certainly not the first instance of a massive time jump during a film, but what makes this different is the anticipation level. I can't recall a time where I ever wanted to know more about the events that would follow that title screen, as my heart was practically pounding out of my chest. What director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance accomplishes in his sophomore feature is what most filmmakers aspire to get right. Unlike anything released in the past year, it's wildly ambitious and uncompromising, spinning a multi-generational epic that seems destined for cult classic status, if not greater. For almost two and a half hours it remains tight, focused, and unfussy even as tells three intrinsically connected stories that somehow isn't based on a published novel or true crime story, despite feeling so every step of the way.

I've gone back and forth on whether to reveal the big plot point at the movie's crux and determined it's necessary in fully explaining the film's tragic pull. If you don't want to know, it's best you STOP READING NOW and return after you've seen it. While the development is undeniably a shocker, the plot development cuts deeper far than that, exceeding a simple "twist.". Killing the protagonist off halfway through the picture is brave, and while it's been successfully accomplished before, it's impossible to name an instance involving not only this huge a star, but the actor being sold as the face of the picture. Of course, that creative decision alone isn't necessarily worthy of praise. There has to be something to it and it must be a narrative necessity.

Here, the main character perishes because his reckless lifestyle and behavior was bound to eventually lead him there. And also because he has to. This is a film that understands consequences and how decisions and actions reverberate beyond those who are immediately affected to sometimes cross over generations. In this case, from fathers to sons. It's interested in the consequences of death and what that means to those left to pick up the pieces. So, yes, the protagonist is killed off an hour in, but for the remaining time it never once feels like he's gone. It's only through death that the character ends up pushing the story into a far larger context that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

Ryan Gosling is motorcycle stunt rider Luke Glanton, who travels the country performing in circuses without ever really laying down roots anywhere. His latest stop is Schnechtady, New York, where he reconnects with single mother Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress worn out and beaten down by life. They previously had a fling and now he's discovered her baby boy, Jason, is his. Despite her moving on with boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke's determined to stick around town to do the right thing and help provide for his son. He takes a job with local auto repair shop owner Robin (Ben Mendolsohn) but his minimum wage salary isn't cutting it, leading the two to pair up and successfully rob some banks in the area.

It isn't long before Luke's worst tendencies grab hold, with his volatile temper threatening to keep him  from his son and his daredevil desire to hit more banks increasing. Robin warns him, "If you ride like thunder, you're gonna crash like lightning." He ends up being right, as Luke's recklessness sets him on a collision course with Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), creating a situation where only one can escape alive.

The opening hour just might contain the best work Gosling's ever done, which is scary when you consider the ground that covers within the past few years and the fact it's actually a SUPPORTING performance. That it can be said with absolute confidence that the character he creates is as instantly iconic as his unnamed getaway driver in Drive is no small praise, especially considering the surface similarities between the two. We know we're in for something special from the film's sensational opening sequence, as the camera follows Luke from behind into the carnival arena like a cage fighter entering the octagon. He puts on his signature ripped Metallica shirt, which, as James Franco pointed out, already seems like Gosling's new scorpion jacket. And I completely agree with Franco that the character ascends to and owns rebel status within minutes of appearing, before even speaking a word of dialogue.

Luke's an adrenaline junkie who can't control his lapses of slow, simmering rage, but he's also trying to do the right thing and be there for his son in a way he claims his father wasn't for him. It's a sadly prophetic desire, as the harder he tries to do the right thing, the deeper a hole he digs for himself doing wrong. He's doomed and doesn't even know it, pushing for reconciliation with Romina that can't possibly happen regardless of whether a child is in the equation or not. And the more it can't happen, the more he pushes. Boundaries don't exist for Luke, on a bike or in life.

His boss Robin makes the mistake of dangling the carrot of criminality in front of the last type of personality who can handle it. Ben Mendelsohn specializes in playing low-life creeps. At first glance it seems as if Robin is exactly that, but he's not. I love that Mendelsohn plays him as essentially a good guy who went down the wrong path and now just seems bored to tears. He comes across as more of a benevolent mentor and friend than corrupting influence, even if a strong argument can still be made for the latter. When he realizes the monster he's awakened in Luke, he lazily tries to stop it but can't even really muster enough energy to do that. It's too late anyway. There could be a whole other movie about just Robin and I wouldn't complain, but the performance deems it unnecessary, giving us everything we need about his character while withholding what we don't.

When these two are flying high together, so is the film, as the entire opening hour is an addictive rush, filled with images, quotable lines and events destined to burn into my consciousness with Mike Patton's mesmerizing score as the soundtrack. Cianfrance really engulfs the viewer and while this is unquestionably a heightened depiction of Schenectady, accentuating both the city's positive and negative attributes, it's far from an inaccurate one considering it was actually filmed on location. From the few who have seen this, the biggest criticism has been that it suffers after Gosling exits, with the last two thirds of the picture paling in comparison to the first. But I'd argue Luke Glanton's legend only grows after his departure, infusing the rest of the story a larger scope and even greater momentum as everyone is left to pick up the pieces of the damage he's left.

The Bradley Cooper section of the saga is every bit as gripping, while still continuing and finishing what was started. While Officer Avery Cross gets his man and is justifiably hailed by the media as a hero for taking out Luke, it's not that simple. Besides being treated like garbage by his superior and fellow officers, his career's essentially over due to the shootout. That his wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and father Al (Harris Yulin) never wanted him to be a cop in the first place is only salt in the wound. But Avery's hardest on himself, wracked with guilt over the fact that he killed a boy's father, emotionally paralyzing him to the point that he can't even look at his own baby boy.

Anyone still doubting last year's discovery of Cooper as a major acting talent or writing it off as just lucking into the right part, should take a look at what he does here, with his most complicated role yet. What's so pitiful about Avery is that, despite the mildly controversial details involving the shooting, he really is a hero who was forced to take the action he did. Cooper plays him at first as kind of a dim bulb, until we slowly realize, with his back against the wall, that he's actually very smart and cunning. He's forced to

Ray Liotta has played a lot of corrupt scumbags in his career but his Peter Deluca just might take the cake. It's a compliment to him that it's hard to think of a more recent movie character I've hated more. I hated the condescending way he talked to Avery. I hated the way he talked to Avery's wife even more. I hated his greediness. Every time this guy speaks it's infuriating, which is exactly what a great villain who gets under your skin should do. Cianfrance takes the well worn plot mechanism of police corruption and makes it fresh and gripping, raising it to the level of Greek tragedy in terms of how it affects all involved, especially those on the periphery.

That Gosling and Cooper never share a scene together and yet the film somehow still feels like their two and a half hour grudge match is a testament speaks not only to their performances, but the rich characterization provided by the script. There's this faint undercurrent running throughout that if Luke and Avery hadn't been on opposite sides of the law then they could have possibly gotten along under different circumstances. That hunch is confirmed in the third act, culminating in a final showdown that can only occur through their sons. And both are very much their father's sons and a product of those events 15 years earlier.

Try as his mother might to keep it from him, you could see how a teen Jason (Dane DeHaan) would want to eventually learn what he could about his biological father. And you could also see how when he finds out about his dad's infamous "motobike bandit," past, that he'd find it really cool and want to know more. At an age where nothing makes sense and there's very little sense of identity, that's a big thing. And it makes sense that path would have to cross with Avery's son, AJ (Emory Cohen). It's not a contrivance. Just a tightly constructed story having its last screw turned. And what a final act it is. It's here where the highly ambitious three-act structure starts to make a lot more sense and all the cards fall into place

Thanks to DeHaan and Cohen's powerfully believable turns there's never any doubt they're the sons of these men despite the lack of any noticeable physical resemblance.DeHaan plays Jason as a sad, quite loner with a short temper while Cohen's AJ has a huge chip on his shoulder, appearing at first to be every bit the thug you'd expect given the years of neglect from his dad. Like their fathers, they're much more alike than different, as both actors transcend those one line descriptions to deliver something deeper and more meaningful. They're also headed for a collision course, finishing the business their dads started, whether they know it or not.

That storytelling this ambitious and expansive could be accomplished on a relatively small budget isn't all that surprising when you consider the ingenuity of the director behind it. Cianfrance's previous collaboration with Gosling, Blue Valentine, stands as one of the few recent films that's grown substantially in stature for me since I first viewed it.  It's a bit more free flowing and messier than this, but contains the same general thematic framework of damaged people as products of unstable families. He just understands what makes his characters tick and knows how to present it onscreen in the most insightful, realistic way possible.

Repeat viewings could easily present the already gripping first hour in a new light knowing what eventually follows. Much like what Affleck did with Boston, Cianfrance turns Schenectady into his personal wasteland of corruption and immorality, where the setting informs the film as much as its characters. If merely the thought of recasting the roles didn't seem to border on sacrilege, there's enough depth and richness here to sustain a long-running television series, with writing and directing that can actually match what we've been seeing now in that medium. With as much ground as this covers, it still even feels like there's more. The Place Beyond The Pines is an epic crime drama that isn't about crime, reminding us that the best ones rarely are.         

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Great review. This was one that I was very impressed by on my initial viewing, but even more so with how much it's stuck with me throughout the year (and through so many other films). Easily one of my favorites of the year, certainly Top 10.