Ride like lightning, crash like thunder...
1,755Far from what anybody could have ever expected from the synopsis and promotional materials, acclaimed director Cianfrance's latest project is another powerful, painful drama; a cross-generational character study that defies convention at every turn.
Reuniting with his lead from the brutally honest anti-romance Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling, as well as teaming up with the likes of Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Dane DeHaan - all on top form - he has produced what is essentially something of an epic anti-crime drama here; perhaps it is even his take on the intersecting lives dramas a la Crash. And in true Cianfrance style it'll likely leave you equal parts moved and broken. Don't expect a warm, pleasant experience - his films are always tragedies with the briefest glimpses of hope around the edges - but do expect one of the best dramas of the year.
Without a doubt one of the must-see movies of the year, the performances alone demand your attention, but the unusual story, compelling direction and fantastic accompanying score further make this a highly recommended outing. Just don't expect this to be Ryan Gosling's baby - it's far bigger than just him alone. If you figured the whole Gosling-as-a-getaway-driver theme would make this something of a half-cousin to Drive then you might be in for a surprise; these two are barely related and if you want a spiritual sequel to 2011's movie-of-the-year then you may have to wait a little bit longer until Only God Forgives, his reteaming with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. Don't let that put you off seeing The Place Beyond the Pines though, just go and see it for the right reasons.
The story, despite what you might have assumed, is actually split into three distinct chapters, each following different lead characters although, of course, there is plenty of overlap as the characters' lives intersect. The first part follows motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton, who discovers that he has a baby boy, born out of a brief fling from his past. Determined to be a part of the boy's - and the mother's - life, he tries to find a job which will enable him to provide for them. Unfortunately, desperate times call for desperate measures and he soon finds himself operating on the wrong side of the law.
One such lawman is rookie beat cop Avery Cross, who is struggling with his own demons. Surrounded by corruption on the force, he is looking for a way out - and above - it all, but when he goes to his supervising officer for help, he soon finds himself almost the Serpico of his team.
Then there's A.J., a teenage troublemaker whose mother packs him off to live with his estranged politically-minded dad, so that his destructive behaviour can be reined-in. At his new school, A.J. meets local loner Jason and the two become friends, but the issues A.J. has with his own parents spill out into Jason's life, making him question his own family history and changing the paths of both their lives forever.
The Place Beyond the Pines is one of those films which you will hopefully come out of deep in thought, reflecting on what you have just seen; contemplating the many themes within it and feeling the resonance of this evocative, emotional tale. It's two generations of tragic life struggles from two different families on opposite sides of the tracks in the same small, New York State city - Schenectady - whose literal translation is the title of the film.
There's no sugar-coating here either, just an honest tale of the highs and lows of life; the damage done by secrets and lies, and the blood ties that cannot be broken even across generations. But it's no Requiem for a Dream either - this isn't pure depressing bleakness - despite the potent, oppressive atmosphere, there is the feeling of a light at the end of the tunnel, however faint and faraway it may seem.
The narrative also defies all convention and common practice, the director unafraid to follow his own path: where most stories are split into a three-act structure (or even four, if you look at the works of Quentin Tarantino), Cianfrance isn't really interested in acts; he wants to deliver up three different stories, all wrapped up in one perfectly-paced 140-minute package. Yet below the surface the fine lines overlap, the structure becomes a spider's web of common themes and genetically identical connective tissue, and the rich depth of the piece resonates.
Are we predisposed towards violence and criminal behaviour or does life nurture it within us? Can we defy our true nature? Are we destined to repeat the past like father, like son? Moral compromises; morally dubious decisions made less out of choice and more out of circumstance - showing how these often split-second decisions often change our lives forever - Cianfrance's epic triptych doesn't seek to offer any answers but instead merely tell it how it is.
Kudos to the writer/director too for the decisions made regarding his ostensible leading man, Ryan Gosling, and credit to the both of them for the unflinching decisions they made with regard to the portrayal of this character. Gosling fans will likely be shocked by the events that befall our anti-hero, and by the transformation Gosling has undertaken since we last saw him (the disappointing Gangster Squad, which even he struggled to shine in). I simply cannot wait to see what he has to offer in Only God Forgives.
As I've made clear repeatedly, this isn't just Gosling's baby; there's a reason why he shares co-starring credit with Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes. Don't be worried about theme bringing down the piece either - this isn't Hangover/A-Team Bradley Cooper and Hitch/Ghost Rider, here they both bring their A-game, delivering career-high performances, particularly in the case of Mendes.
Between this and Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper has certainly shown audiences a different side to his acting and, with any luck, Hangover 3 will only be a cash-friendly blip on the way towards other strong character-driven vehicles where acclaimed directors can bring out the best in him. Here he gets some excellent moments of power and vulnerability; confusion and confidence, and whilst the roles still plays to his suave strengths, it also allows him room to breathe and show off a broader range than we are normally used to.
Mendes benefits not only from working with a decent director but also opposite her latest partner, Gosling himself, with whom she shares undeniable chemistry. Although she has the unhappy job of championing the female side of this drama almost single-handedly (Rose Byrne manages to get in a couple of words in but is largely kept on the bench), she truly rises to the task. And whilst some might feel that the women in Cianfrance's sophomore vehicle (notwithstanding his largely unseen indie festival-circuit 1998 feature Brother Tied) aren't given as much time and depth as with Blue Valentine, that is simply the nature of the fathers-and-sons narrative and not indicative of any shortcomings in the script. You couldn't have hoped for a better-rounded character than Mendes's torn and tortured single mother.
Then there's the next generation, as represented by Dane DeHaan (recently excellent in Chronicle and under-utilised in Lawless) and Emory Cohen. Little-known TV actor Emory Cohen does a great job at developing the usual tough-guy wannabe-gangster spoiled rich-kid bulky into something far more convincing, real, and even sympathetic, but it's DeHaan who proves once again that he's an upcoming young star-in-the-making - one to keep your eye on as his integral role as Harry Osbourne in the Amazing Spider-man sequels will likely see him blown into the limelight over the next few years and, hopefully, given the opportunity to further show that he's one of the most promising young actors of his generation. It's surely no coincidence that this movie shows him following in the footsteps of Ryan Gosling; there isn't a better young actor who could have been picked for this part.
Supporting this quintet of co-stars we get a number of other familiar faces; character actors who also shine as a result of both the quality of the script and the strength of the director. Ben Mendelsohn (Dark Knight Rises, Killer Elite) and Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Identity) reunite after their excellent work opposite Brad Pitt on Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly; Mendelsohn channelling a near-Dustin Hoffman/Rain Man-like simplicity to his affable garage owner that helps out Gosling’s lost soul and Liotta once again convincing as a dodgy, fairly intimidating cop – almost making you wonder whether he actually was one in another life. Mahershala Ali (4400) gets a brief moment to shine as Jason’s step-dad; the ever-reliable Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, Deja Vu) keeps working that moustache, playing a similar role to that in Flight as the man investigating a police shooting; and Harris Yulan (excellent in Scarface and Clear and Present Danger) has another nice little supporting part, this time as a retired Judge – and Avery’s dad.
As much a character of the piece in its own right, the score by composer Mike Patton is an integral component of the proceedings, alluding to the film's darker themes right from the get-go, with oppressive, almost doom-laden undertones that wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch feature. It's hauntingly evocative, undoubtedly one of the best scores of the year, but - like the film itself - it's not without its silver lining; the light at the end of the tunnel championed by three separate instances where the same theme is repeated across the piece. Simply beautiful. You also won’t fail to notice the perfect use of Ennio Morricone’s stunning Ninna Nanna Per Adulteri, a little-known track from the little-known 1969 film Cuore di Mamma (Mother’s Heart) which he did the score for, and of Bon Iver’s impressive The Wolves, which closes out the drama. It’s a superb soundtrack.
Considering the compatibly restrictive budget that he was working from - $15 million wouldn't buy you much in Hollywood these days - Cianfrance manages to craft a surprisingly impressive-looking feature too. Sure it's got that grungy, gritty look you would only expect from this kind of guerrilla filmmaking, but the thrilling chase sequences and, in particular, the motorcycle stunts (performed by the same stuntman who did the motorcycle sequences for the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy), are superbly shot. Whether it’s the standout opening sequence which ends with one of the most bewilderingly dangerous stunts you will probably ever see (do people really do this for a living?) or the chance encounter in the forest, brilliantly captured through the passing trees, Cianfrance manages to bring depth, significance and character development even to the action.
In interviews the cast have talked about how difficult it was to shoot some of the sequences, mostly because Cianfrance wanted to commit really long takes to film; do extended shots that involved multiple tasks, all in one take – i.e. having Gosling ride into the scene on a motorcycle, have a scene with dialogue and then get back onto the bike and ride off. It has a wonderful effect on the fluidity of the piece and, whilst it does not give the same standout impression as some of Scorsese’s similar long-take work on the likes of Goodfellas and Casino, it does still surprise (the opening sequence, whilst it will be remembered for its closing stunt, was still one really long take, which started with whipping around a butterfly knife no less). The dialogue also has a wonderfully improvisational nature to it, whether it’s in the early scenes between Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Gosling or the later ones between Bradley Cooper and Bruce Greenwood, with it working well to make the film feel more authentic and its characters more real.
Cianfrance has already made rumbles about a longer cut, but says it will never happen because the production studios won’t help him release one – so instead we’ll just get the cut scenes as extras when it comes to a home formats release. Personally I think The Place Beyond the Pines is the perfect length as-is, but multiple viewings – which this film most definitely lends itself to – may leave you yearning for a longer version so you can explore some of the individual character arcs in even greater detail. Certainly it would have been nice to have explored more from both Gosling and the latter-end teenagers, although a first viewing would not have been the place to do it.
There’s no doubt that this will end up being reflected upon as one of the absolute best films of the year, although unfortunately that’s only by the select few people who will actually get around to seeing it. Aside from the poor and misleading promotion – which skews this as some kind of Gosling-starring sequel to Drive, only on bikes – the limited release will leave this film distinctly
underappreciated; jammed into a run for probably little more than a week between the bigger hitters like Oblivion and Iron Man 3. Sure, those are both the kind of blockbusters which arguably demand to be seen on the Big Screen but, funnily enough, The Place Beyond the Pines warrants that too. It’s a sweeping, epic crime drama which comes across with a staggering impact when seen on the Big Screen, the gritty visuals and haunting score drawing you further into the piece and gripping you right through until the end. So don’t dismiss it before you even give it a chance, try and find the closest cinema to you that’s still showing this true gem and go and watch it now.
VerdictIf you ride like lightning, you'll crash like thunder.
Reuniting with his lead from the brutally honest anti-romance Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling, as well as teaming up with the likes of Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Dane DeHaan - all on top form – director Derek Cianfrance has produced what is essentially something of an epic anti-crime drama here. Notwithstanding a little-known indie debut, The Place Beyond the Pines represents his sophomore writer/director vehicle, an intersecting-lives drama in the vein of Crash and Traffic. And in true Cianfrance style it'll likely leave you equal parts moved and broken. Don't expect a warm, pleasant experience - his films are always tragedies with the briefest glimpses of hope around the edges - but do expect one of the best dramas of the year. Highly recommended.