A couple of times, readers have replied to my reviews with a very reasonable question: “So, is the movie worth seeing?” It’s a response that initially takes me aback, since as the writer I presume (perhaps inaccurately) that my impression of a movie is there in plain sight. But on second look, indeed this is not always the case. There are reasons for this, among them that to me the “what” and the “how” of films are far more compelling than evaluations or consumer guides (i.e., the “why not”). The function of film criticism seems particularly topical after the outpouring of fond remembrances last week for the late Roger Ebert, who expanded the very limits of “film critic” until it was a model for the 21st century public intellectual.
But periodically a film comes along that prompts me to think about the question of evaluation, and in particular what it means for a critic (or anybody, really) to recommend a movie to anyone else. The Place Beyond the Pines, the new film from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, is just such a film, precisely because its idiosyncrasies are, from a slightly different angle of vision, indistinguishable from flaws. It operates within a self-enclosed sphere of bravado and artifice, while still drawing upon certain surface elements of theatrical realism. Because of this, it continually threatens to topple over into preposterousness.
I know many intelligent viewers who strongly dislike The Place Beyond the Pines, and I can understand why they feel this way. You yourself may dislike it as well. But I happen to find it exceedingly powerful, rather like observing a controlled implosion.
Pines is a film about destiny. Whereas some films would require some degree of distance or interpretation to arrive at such an assessment, Cianfrance’s boldfaced manipulations make this theme unmistakable, like a working-class, upstate New York version of Sophocles. In the first half of the film, we meet Luke (Ryan Gosling), a gifted motorcyclist. He makes money doing cycle stunts in a traveling carnival. Upon arriving in Schenectady, he reconnects with an old one-night-stand, Ro (Eva Mendes), only to discover he has a son. Deciding he should try to be a responsible father, he quits the circuit, tries to make a life in town, and eventually becomes a bank robber. His segment of the film ends [SPOILER, sort of ...] when he is cornered and killed by Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop.
At this point, Cianfrance shifts gears completely, as Pines becomes all about Avery, his struggle to recover from a debilitating injury sustained during the shootout, his guilt over killing Luke, and his discovery of extensive corruption within the Schenectady P.D. As Avery breaks the code of silence and teams up with a D.A. (Bruce Greenwood), his own life spins out of control. Then, in Pines’ final act, Luke’s poor, fatherless son Jason (Dane DeHaan) and Avery’s spoiled-brat kid AJ (Emory Cohen) meet up in high school 15 years later, as Avery is running for New York State D.A. How will these two boys, with interconnected fates, affect one another’s lives as they careen toward manhood?
Many of the criticisms leveled at this film center on its blatant plot contrivance. And again, the extent to which you, the viewer, find Pines bracing or exhausting will hinge in part upon your ability to embrace its fundamental project. Cianfrance, who studied filmmaking with the avant-garde filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, is clearly not interested in consistent verisimilitude. Much more so than Blue Valentine (and in fact, more like Cianfrance’s unreleased, highly Expressionist 1998 debut feature Brother Tied), Pines employs sweeping emotion and a highly visible structure to heighten artifice.
At the same time, Pines does not abandon gritty realism altogether, especially in its depiction of the mundane struggles of the working poor. Cianfrance is working territory similar to that of James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), producing a form of male-oriented melodrama, with straightforward subtext and expansive performances (Gosling’s especially) that recall Bollywood drama at its most florid.
Needless to say, these descriptors will be red flags to some, adamant come-ons to others. The Place Beyond the Pines is a testosterone-fueled burst of barely contained class and paternal anxiety, although it does make room for lovely, subtle work by Mendes (an actress who is going from strength to strength in recent years). If Pines has one pivotal failure, it’s Cooper, who can never deliver what so many directors ask of him. All the same, Cianfrance’s overriding shell of artifice smooths out Cooper’s irregularities. This is a director’s film, one defined by style and tone.
Inasmuch as it speaks to us, it does so in frankly symbolic ways, and this is of course when one’s mileage will vary. In this respect, it is ironic that the film’s title (taken from the Mohawk meaning of “Schenectady”) points to a place beyond anything. The Place Beyond the Pines is confined to a beautiful bubble, content to refer to itself.
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