Title: The Place Beyond the Pines
Genre(s): Crime, Drama
Director(s): Derek Cianfrance
Release Year: 2013
With Derek Cianfrance’s debut feature-length film, Blue Valentine, an extremely intimate portrait of a decaying relationship was shown in unflinching detail. The result was one of the best films of that year, with its two lead actors delivering powerhouse performances, resulting in an Academy Award nomination for Michelle Williams. I don’t think The Place Beyond the Pines will get the recognition it deserves come Oscar time, but Cianfrance has crafted a more ambitious, expectation-defying epic about the bond between a father and his son. In what seems like an intimate film, Mike Patton’s beautiful score and Sean Bobbitt’s mix of claustrophobic and vast shots creates a feeling of something grand happening, something that spans generations, but only cares about a handful of individuals and how their lives intersect.
Because of the nature of the film, and how massive in scope it is, there is no main character really. There are two stories which help craft the final act of The Place Beyond the Pines. The first of these focuses on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle driver and drifter, who discovers he has fathered a son. Trying to be better than his own father, who left him at a young age, he decides to be there for his son and support him. Unfortunately, the way he goes about doing this is utilizing his skills as a stunt driver to rob banks. The second story follows Bradley Cooper’s character, Avery Cross, who is a rookie cop with a father that is deep into the political scene. Avery also has a son, and lets his job consume him, keeping him from being the caring, attentive father he needs to be. Both of these stories culminate into a 15 year fast-forward when the audience sees how Luke and Avery’s characters have impacted their own children. The narrative essentially betrays the idea of the main character of The Place Beyond the Pines being a person. Instead, it is the father and son relationship which is examined and fleshed out, that acts as the main character to the film.
One of the other more interesting aspects of the film is the way it is written, defying any narrative expectations. It is not a “web of life” film like Love Actually and the plethora of other films that have a series of stories unfold at the same time, connecting every character together. No, this film follows a strict chronological order and each narrative very rarely intersects with one another. We spend our time with each character, getting to know him inside and out, discovering every attribute, until we have gotten just enough out of them to move onto the next character. The important thing is not the characters, but how those characters have either been impacted by their father and/or how they impact their son. In this way, The Place Beyond the Pines is a staggering achievement of how to tell a story. It relies heavily on little details that come out from each character, over the time we spend with them, and just how those add to the characterizations of themselves.
The fun of the film is seeing these little moments come out in related characters, and that is a testament to both the writing and the actors. Supporting a cast that could pack a theater full of both indie fans and mainstream audiences alike, The Place Beyond the Pines collectively contains some of the best performances of the year. Gosling is absolutely electric, but I think the performance that riled me up the most was Dane DeHaan’s, who once again proves that he is an actor to watch out for in the future. Everyone else is also exceptional, including performances from supporting characters like Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn (who I guess is always going to play the greased-up lowlife), Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, and more prominent characters like Emory Cohen and Bradley Cooper.
The score by Mike Patton is worth noting as well, since it fits oh so well with the scale of the movie. The Place Beyond the Pines is a more challenging film to score because it needs to match the theme and ambition which the movie presents. Mike Patton is no stranger to being ambitious though, and his score truly reflects that. The main theme that plays throughout the film, “The Snow Angel”, is at times ethereal, but also very haunting. Same goes with most of the songs, which manage to feel grand and small, without feeling jarring. The compliment goes to every technical aspect of the movie, because the intimate feeling of the film can only be achieved by the unity of every department from editing to mixing to composing and shooting. Sean Bobbitt’s photography on this film is sometimes reminiscent of his work on films like Hunger and Shame, but then there are the vast landscapes which help to make the film feel much less isolated than it really is, creating that same ambitious feeling which the score does time and again.
Overall, it’s hard to complain about The Place Beyond the Pines because every piece feels so necessary. The complaint that most will have is that the movie is too long, and I can understand the argument, but once again, the necessity of each character and scene warrants a longer runtime than typical of these sorts of films. By the time we get to the 15 years-later epilogue, it may not feel like there needs to be more shown, but once the characters start being given time to develop, the importance of the scenes come rushing forward. The movie is comprised of 3 smaller movies, combined into one, and the fact that it works without feeling too disconnected from one another, is because of the exemplary writing that is on display. Derek Cianfrance has proven once again that he is a master of the intimate family drama, with his humanistic elements coming to the forefront of each of his movies. It would be nice to see him branch out and try his hand at other genres, but at the same time, I feel like I am a part of the relationships he creates, like I’ve been there from the beginning to the end, when I’ve only really been present for a couple of hours.