Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a viscerally pensive film and an enthralling multi-generational drama. As equally well-crafted as his highly received Blue Valentine, Pines is a complex and engrossing film that takes a look at legacies and what we leave behind for our kids. Further it shows us that those legacies, whether we want them or not, can sometimes make life choices for us without our say in the matter. It’s an ever-escalating, multilayered, emotionally bold familial drama that has all the makings of an instant classic.
Cianfrance’s sophomore effort tells a sobering story about love and family and further one that despite the best of intentions may all end in a dismal trail of tears. The affecting story in Pines chronicles the realistic characters’ lives in a contrasting best of times/worst of times narrative structure. Cianfrance takes it up a notch and boldly tells a three acts story that could very easily been three different films. The triptych storytelling style gives us a look at a two families whose lies come together in a millisecond of tragedy and how the effects of this singular moment’s repercussions ripple farther than anyone could imagine. From the very first frame, Cianfrance’s gritty film has a hypnotic and alluring quality. The film is not about good or bad people but people trying to do the best they can based on the hands they are dealt. They do their best to take responsibility for their actions and moreover don’t claim to be happy for the wrongs they embrace to get ahead, or even just keep their family’s needs met.
Cianfrance, whose experience comes from documentary filmmaking, gives us films and stories that are not tied up in a nice little bow. To him that idea rings false and from just Blue Valentine alone it’s clear that Cianfrance aims to get involved in things that are free of any and all sugar-coating. Here it’s no different and with Pines he shows that nothing is really over as the events we see, as long and drawn out though they may be, are just chapters in these characters lives.
Luke (Gosling), somewhat of a rock star in sleepy Schenectady NY, rides motorcycles in the traveling circus as the titular member of Handsome Luke and the Heartthrobs. Content with the gypsy lifestyle he’s had for years his world changes when he finds that he is the father to a young baby by Romina (Eva Mendes). Due to Luke’s penchant for not sticking around, she has taken up with a man in hopes of raising their young son right. With little skills to speak of, Luke turns to bank robbing to support his son. Yet as much as he tries Romina resists and refuses his advances. Luke takes residence in some decrepit dwellings to rob banks with his new landlord Robin (Ben Mendelsohn); someone whose own shady past offers Luke a few pointers about making fast cash from the local yokel banks. Really it’s his only option and his proficiency with motorcycles proves to be why he’s so good at these small time jobs. Yet like anything it’s too good to last and as Robin tells him, heard in the much quoted line in the adverts, “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder“.
As Luke blitzes more and more banks it’s clear his robbing hood lifestyle is nearly at an end when following his rushed and supposedly final job he comes face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a young police officer. Their lives change irrevocably in a millisecond but the story they tell us with their respective life paths show us how doing the right thing is more of an uphill battle than doing the wrong thing. Moreover, Pines goes a long way to show how we as people, sometimes having less than nothing in common, are in fact so vastly interconnected. Each of Cianfrance’s characters have such a fractured density that makes them more than just hollow figures waling through the scenery. Pines’ gritty realism feels almost unscripted. Everyone has a weight and carries each scene with such simple and effortless believability that the story at times plays out like a live action documentary.
The story goes on in a way to that to tell anymore about it would be highly spoiler-filled but each of the acts in this dense and incredibly complex triptych focuses on one main character while finding little camera time goes to the other two characters. It’s a bold move, something we as an audience don’t see very often, makes what could be a trite story into something extraordinary. It has echoes of Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low and Pines may possibly help Cianfrance to be equally as well regarded in his next few efforts.
A highly capable actor, Gosling has such a unique way about him. His Luke is a tortured but restrained soul and much like his role in Drive or even Gangster Squad he’s not the type of character you’d run across in real life. He embodies a young Marlon Brando and while soft-spoken is actually a retrained powerhouse of emotion. He’s brimming with it under the surface but the reserved nature keeps it under control, if barely. The supporting characters really pull their weight as everyone tries to save Luke from himself so he ultimately doesn’t hurt others. Cianfrance holds nothing back and when the film isn’t brooding and pensive it is white-knuckled and intense affair.
There’s always an uneasiness to each scene. We’re shown these characters who are real and constantly let their guard down. While many elements are unsavory, cinematographer Sean Bobbit (Hunger, Shame) creates scenes that are at times dreamlike. He grafts a soul to every shot/frame making even the grit to the pedestrian landscapes, and the backdrop of the early 90’s New York, look highly stylized and gorgeous. In The Place Beyond the Pines, no one is a saint even if not everyone is a sinner. When the story shifts focus to Cooper it becomes even more intricate as we get to see the other half, well third, of how the Cooper/Gosling altercation affects these seemingly simple characters and fleshes them out. Were this some sort of Point Break-esqe good guy/bad guy duality it might be less interesting and nearly trite (regardless of the griping performances).
Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine closed with a “now what?” ending. By way of it being so open-ended it feels so incredibly real. The third act of The Place Beyond the Pines aims and captures that same feeling even so far as to say Pines is clearly the superior effort. True the final third has the capacity to lose the audience who were invested in certain main characters, but while having a disjointed feeling Cianfrance’s narrative structure really brings everything home; if not for one pivotal scene (with Cooper and DeHaan) beyond the actual “pines” but for one of the simplest but most underplayed, and rather perfect endings in a good number of years, on par with say The Godfather (or even Monsters Inc.).