Friday, April 26, 2013

Passed Down: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES


If you go to see The Place Beyond the Pines, you’ll pay to see one movie and get two more at no extra charge. That’s not because the film’s overstuffed, but because of the film’s structure. It’s built out of three stories that are separate and yet flow into each other, not so much evolving as filling up with evocative resonances and echoes. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance must like this sort of thing. His last film, the great, harrowing relationship drama Blue Valentine, cut back and forth, balancing the beginning and end of a relationship, tentative young romance smashing inevitably into aged tensions. With his new film, Cianfrance has created something of an intimate epic. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours, it feels long, spanning two generations, confidently shifting the protagonist not once, not twice, but three times, leaving the structure feeling like three short stories placed back to back.

As the film starts, we’re introduced to a drifter, a handsome stunt motorcyclist played by Ryan Gosling. He travels with a carnival, breaking hearts and making a little bit of money in each town. That routine changes when an old flame (Eva Mendes) introduces him to his son. Now desperate to be a part of his child’s life, he attempts to settle down and soon resorts to making money in a less-than-legal way. That’s how we meet an ambitious young cop who becomes the film’s new focus. He’s played by Bradley Cooper as a proud, privileged man desperate to make something out of his life. He’s a man whose rich father (Harris Yulin) and worried wife (Rose Byrne) can barely understand why he’s chosen such a risky profession. I’ll save the film’s last story unspoiled except to say that it riffs on the choices these two men make and the impact they have on the next generation.

Cianfrance briskly establishes vivid detail out of casually precise production design and meticulous performances. A fairly early scene of adrenaline, suspense and daredevilry ends with Gosling vomiting on the rough wood floor in the back of an empty cube truck. I could almost feel the sweat, sawdust and stink in my nostrils. When the cut away from this scene starts up a Springsteen song on the soundtrack, it was only underlining what, by that point, was more than clear. We’re seeing a blue-collar story song of a film, a meandering tribute to the working class. Gosling and Cooper are playing characters who use what they do to define who they are and their attempts to either live up to and break away from those definitions lead them down different, yet in many ways similarly perilous, roads.

It’s thematically overreaching and narratively overdetermined and inefficient, but there’s an absorbing pleasure to the way the film plays out. It doesn’t come together as smoothly or completely as its structure suggests, but there are nonetheless satisfying echoes across three discreet plot arcs, like when an early long shot of Gosling riding a motorcycle down a wooded two-lane road is mirrored in a late long shot of a teenager riding a bike down the very same road. It’s effective. Cianfrance (with co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) has made a film of immersive plotting with the harder-than-it-looks pleasure of narrative curiosity. I cared as I wondered what would happen next for the characters and was eager for the unfolding events to tell me more. There’s a confidence to the film’s ambition and indulgence that I was willing to accept. The destination may be slightly less than the journey promises, but the sheer narrative pleasure kept me more than enough engaged.

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