With The Place Beyond the Pines, director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance has crafted one of the most engrossing cinematic tragedies of recent memory. Here is a powerful, multilayered, emotionally resonant generational story told in the language of some of the greatest archetypes in the history of narrative tradition; it’s about fathers and sons, about legacy, about action and consequence, about how decisions made in the past can have a profound effect on the future. It’s all rather heartbreaking and poetic. As was the case with Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine, it’s a triumph of character development, themes of identity and personal evaluation applied to each role. And although each character is classically epitomized, they blend seamlessly into a visual style that’s thoroughly modern.
The film is divided into three linear storylines, none of which I can or would want to describe in excruciating detail. I don’t even want to supply you with vague hints, as that would only spoil what Cianfrance, his co-writers, his cast, and his crew work so hard to achieve. In fact, part of me doesn’t believe that a review is necessary, that the best course of action would be to simply urge you to find a theater where it’s playing. But if I went that route, I wouldn’t be able to share with you how much I appreciated this film, and believe me, there’s a great deal to appreciate. Let me begin by saying that, individually, each chapter is superbly structured and could conceivably stand on its own as a character-driven short film. When put together, they transform into a singular work of art, one of astounding emotional depth.
I’ll word this as carefully as possible. The first story involves Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who’s part of a travelling sideshow. Nothing about his past is revealed, and yet we know he has seen a lot, done a lot, and has had a lot happen to him; soft-spoken and seemingly emotionless, he never walks around without a pocketknife, there’s nary a moment when a cigarette isn’t dangling from his lips, and his body is covered in tattoos that speak volumes in their visual simplicity. He and his show have returned to Schenectady after passing through a year earlier. Upon reuniting with his old flame, a waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes), Luke learns that, in his absence, she gave birth to their son, Jason. Determined to be a provider at any cost, Luke quits the sideshow, becomes a car mechanic, and when that turns out to be low-paying, starts robbing banks.
The second story involves a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Because he cannot come to terms with something he did in the line of duty, which earned him a reputation as a hero, he begins to emotionally separate from his wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne), and their infant son, A.J. Rather than resolve his personal issues, he distracts himself by trying to straighten out the entire police department, which has become dangerously corrupt under the leadership of the threatening and repugnant Detective Deluca (Ray Liotta), who has masterminded a reprehensible operation and roped Avery along for the ride. The more Avery tries to make things right, the less it seems that anyone is willing to help, including his superiors. He’s risking not only his professional standing, but also his life.
The third story is the not only the weightiest of the film but is also the trickiest to describe without giving anything crucial away. It takes place fifteen years after the events of the first two stories, at which point Luke and Avery’s respective sons, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), are teenagers. I dare not reveal where, if anyplace, their fathers are at this stage of their lives. I can say that it’s precisely because of their fathers that both are deeply troubled. Jason and A.J. attend the same school but aren’t necessarily aware of each other’s existence, not at first. Even when they do become aware, they have yet to discover the history that binds them together. There are two dramatic confrontations during this chapter, and in both cases, I must refrain from saying which characters confront each other, why, and where. The less you know about this movie beforehand, the better off you’ll be.
It’s hard to make a masterpiece. It’s harder still to make more than one. It’s probably the hardest thing of all to make two masterpieces back to back. With Blue Valentine, and now with The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance has achieved that very distinction. Here is a filmmaker who understands and respects the importance of his characters; whether they’re painfully authentic or compellingly dramatized, he knows how to work them into a story, to humanize them, to enable us to care about what happens to them. Watching Pines, I felt as if I knew what every character was about; I was made to see what motivated them, what angered them, what conflicted them, what the thought process was behind every action. We delve into their minds just as much as the filmmakers do. This is one of the year’s best films.
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