Given a choice, Judge Gordon Sullivan prefers meditations on pizza to meditations on violence.
One moment can change your life.
Derek Cianfrance has taken an odd route to cinematic success. After getting a film degree from the same university as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and studying with noted experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon), Cianfrance embarked on the nineties model of indie filmmaking. He released a visually inventive low-budget drama at Sundance. I don't know if it was personal choice or the decline in the indie market (due to rising, Weinstein-style budgets), but Cianfrance moved into the world of documentary, for both music and television. In a strange twist he re-emerged as a narrative filmmaker in 2010 with the controversial Blue Valentine, a hit among the indie set that showed his skills hadn't been dulled. His follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines finds him reuniting with Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling to deliver a meditative drama that explores the effects of desperation and violence.
Facts of the Case
Luke (Ryan Gosling, Drive) is an itinerant stunt motorcyclist, and when he returns to the sylvan landscape of upstate New York for the first time in a year he attempts to rekindle a prior romance with Romina (Eva Mendes, Ghost Rider). He discovers that he has a one-year-old son that he knew nothing about. He immediately gives up the life of a traveling stunt driver, settling down to provide for Romina and his son (despite the fact that Romina has a new boyfriend). Though he puts his mechanical skills to work, his boss suggests that instead they rob a few banks: with Luke's skills on a bike they can make a quick getaway and pocket loads of cash. This dangerous lifestyle brings Luke into contact with ambitious cop Avery (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook), and the consequences of their meeting will reverberate beyond their lives.
Fans of cinema sometimes find themselves playing games of "What if?" You know, "What if Orson Welles had taken the role of Jor-El instead of Marlon Brando?" or "What if Jodorosky had beaten David Lynch to Dune?" Though we don't have a definitive answer (and likely never will), The Place Beyond the Pines suggests what it would be like if Terrence Malick ever decided to make an action film.
Immediately the association conjures (at least for me) a contradiction. So much of Terrence Malick's work, especially his recent output, has been about abandoning narrative, the life blood of the action film. It's true, The Place Beyond the Pines doesn't have much truck with the way most action movies are told. Strangely, perhaps, all the beats are there—a desperate man does desperate things until he's caught after several scenes of strife—but the 141-minute running time suggests that this will not be the average action film. Of course the necessary beats are there—the tension of robbing the bank, the anxiety of the getaway—but Cianfrance is much more interested in seeing the effects of these actions than he is in fetishizing the execution of criminal activity. He's no Michael Mann. Instead, this is where the comparisons to Malick start to bear fruit. In the same way that Malick's elliptical storytelling will often give us effect with no cause, The Place Beyond the Pines de-emphasizes the cause to sink us deeper into the messiness of the aftermath.
The other way in which The Place Beyond the Pines earns its Malick comparison is that it is starkly, luminously beautiful. Though Cianfrance shares almost nothing with Brakhage or Solomon formally, he's learned from his teachers to follow his own sense of beauty, not shying away from shots that are explicitly, overtly glorious to look at. In many scenes not much actually happens—Luke will ride his motorcycle or have a brief conversation—but the camera sees everything bathed in a flat but luminous light that makes every scene something to treasure beyond its narrative impact (or, it has to be said, lack thereof).
Beyond whatever comparisons I might fashion for it, The Place Beyond the Pines boasts a stellar cast. Ryan Gosling is absolutely central to the success of the film, and he's not afraid to rough up his image further with tattoos and a character who isn't terribly charming. He's magnetic in the role, the center of every scene he's in because of Gosling's intensity and the mystery of his character. Eva Mendes is his match, similarly willing to play up the hardscrabble side of her character to appear as unglamorous as I've seen her in a film. Bradley Cooper has comparatively less to do, but even his briefer appearances demonstrate the gravitas he brings to even small roles.
This excellent The Place Beyond the Pines (Blu-ray) also does the film some favors. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer gives Cianfrance's visuals a chance to shine. Detail is strong throughout, and colors are especially well-presented, perfectly saturated, and consistent. Black levels are great, with the occasional bit of grain in night shots but nothing distracting or noisy. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly excellent. The roar of Luke's motorcycle is perfectly balanced with the scenes of dialogue, and the action sequences give the surrounds plenty of room to play as well.
The film's main extra is a commentary from Cianfrance, who dishes out the usual comments on inspiration and the way production went. It's a fine track and fans of the flick will want his insights despite the epic length for a solo commentary. We also get a 4-minute making-of featurette that quickly talks to the cast about their experiences on the film, followed by four deleted scenes. A DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy are also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Star Ryan Gosling and a plot about a stunt driver will call to mind Drive for many viewers, and the comparison is somewhat apt. In both cases those coming in looking for a traditional action/thriller will be sorely disappointed. Similarly, those simply looking for Gosling to play a likable sex symbol will be disappointed as well. Finally, the film's length does demand a lot from the audience. I think it rewards that attention with an interesting meditation on violence, but not all viewers will agree.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a worthy follow-up to Blue Valentine, both for filmmaker and star. It's not a film for those looking for the easy pleasures of a typical action film, but for those who want a character-driven drama with plenty of visual flair will appreciate what it offers. Though one could hope for more extras, this is an excellent and worthy of a rental at the least.
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