Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

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The Place Beyond the Pines, co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, is an ambitious if flawed film that manages to be the definitive film about Schenectady, New York (the title is the Mohawk translation of the name of the city) and a reminder of the old saying, “The sins of the father are visited upon the son.”

I say that with some trepidation, because discussing the plot is difficult without spoiling the hell out of it. I’ll give it a try, but be wary.

The film consists of three distinct acts, but are connected. It reminded me of a common thing in literature now–the book of short stories that share characters. The first act is about Ryan Gosling as a motorcyclist who does stunts for a traveling carnival. When he’s back in Schenectady, he runs into an old girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and learns that she has had his son. He quits the carnival to stay nearby, and gets a job with a shady mechanic (a wonderful Ben Mendelsohn). This mechanic suggests a solution to Gosling’s money woes would be robbing banks. Gosling finally agrees, and gets hooked on it, but we all know this won’t end well.

The second act concerns police corruption, a kind of suburban Serpico. Bradley Cooper is a laywer who has idealistically joined the police force, and becomes a public hero. But he finds that the cops who befriend him are dirty, all the way up to the chief of police. Cooper struggles with what to do, and consults his father (Harris Yulin), a judge.

The third act concerns two teenagers fifteen years later after the first two acts. They are the sons of Gosling and Cooper, but don’t know the past connection. Cooper’s son is an absolute zilch, even though he has grown up in wealth. Gosling’s son (a very good Dane DeHaan) tries to find out about his father, and we can feel the building tragedy.

There’s a lot to like here, and it’s definitely worth seeing, with some caveats: this is a depressing film, keeping with Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine (but it’s much better than that film). There’s little in the way of levity here, and one can’t help that the use of Schenectady is kind of back-handed compliment (I believe it was shot there), since the place is so important to the story that it feels as if Cianfrance is condemning the place. Or at least the kind of city it is–a once thriving industrial city, now rusting away.

Also, though the three acts are connected by characters, I just didn’t feel the connection until the third act. Maybe that was Cianfrance’s bit of misdirection, but I don’t really want to be fooled in a movie like this. The swerve that happens between Gosling and Cooper’s sections is dizzying, and it’s a while before we can let the first go and focus on the second.

Gosling is not one of my favorite actors but he’s fine here–this is the kind of role that suits him. The very first shot of him is his six-pack abs, which may be his best acting feature. Cooper is excellent.

My grade for The Place Beyond the Pines: B.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. this is a depressing film, keeping with Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine (but it’s much better than that film

    Well, that’s enough to try this one. As long as it’s much better, then it at least has to be half-decent.

  2. Didn’t realize that I had forgotten to comment on this.

    This is one of my least favorite kinds of movies, the faux-profound art film that thinks it’s really special just because it’s dour and most everyone in it is miserable.

    Plus, Cianfrance is very poor at character construction, to the point that all of the characters are stuck with remaining “types” instead of people. For example, Cooper’s character is rebelling against his dad and becomes a cop instead of an attorney. Fine, but he ends up a D.A. anyway – but what type of D.A. is he? We go straight from him getting that job to fifteen years later when he’s running for office, but can anyone say with confidence how he conducted his office in the meantime? Or, another example, he carries around that picture of Gosling in his wallet – why? How does that affect him as a person – or as a D.A.? Who knows? Just the fact that he has it tells us what, that he feels guilty? So what? How does that guilt manifest itself, other than letting the kid off easy when his own son gets him in trouble (something rather unexceptional that he may or may not have done for any number of other kids, who knows)? It’s just lazy and empty shorthand by Cianfrance to put that picture in there, a substitute for actual character development.

    Or take Cooper’s son. He’s a total dick, and … what, resents his dad or something? I guess we’re supposed to assume that, but why? I don’t know if we can say anything about how he feels about his dad, frankly. And why does he talk and act like he’s doing a James Dean impersonation by way of a central New York trailer park meth lab? He grew up in a fairly affluent household, wouldn’t he have a tad bit more polish in the way he presents himself, even if he was trying to slum it? What a bizarre character.

    Gosling, as usual, is awful. I know it must seem comical at this point how much I dislike him, but I can’t help it. Every scene he’s in, he seems so self-conscious, as if he’s saying, “Look at me, I am Ryan Gosling, a BRILLIANT ACTOR.” He’s so unnatural and so show-offy and it drives me nuts.

    And finally, how dumb are the bank robberies? As if no one’s going to see a motorcycle being pursued by cops and pulling into a truck 50 feet off a busy road? Come on. The first one might be successful, but after that, the jig is up. There’d be a half-dozen witnesses that saw him pull into the truck and the next time the cops would be looking for it. Plus, he’s going to ride that bike during his robberies and still ride it around town as if no one is looking for it? I mean, nothing conspicuous about that, right?

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