The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
For chrissakes, bring the Zoloft.
The Place Beyond the Pines is about a traveling stuntman who winds up back in Schenectady, NY after being on the road for a year. He runs in to a girl that he hooked up with the year prior, and much to his surprise, discovers that he done got her pregnant. So he quits his death-defying job at the carnival and tries his damnedest to be present in his son’s life, or at the very least financially provide for him. But since biking with carnies doesn’t look great on a resume, it isn’t long before he starts robbing banks let and right. Next thing he knows, a heist goes awry and he crosses paths with a local cop who has an infant son of his own. From that point forward, their lives – and the lives of their children – become unalterably intertwined.
Before I went to see this, just about everyone I know who beat me to the punch had told me how disappointed they were. From what they’d been led to believe, they were gearing themselves up for a cops-and-robbers picture starring three of planet Earth’s most ridiculously attractive people. And when you consider that it’s being marketed as that very same movie, I really can’t blame them for getting their hopes up.
Because while banks do get robbed and Cooper chases Gosling, the only real truth to the situation is that everyone is ridiculously attractive (and even that one’s a stretch at times). So if you’re expecting to have your adrenaline pumped, then you’re setting yourself up for a letdown. But if it’s a generational drama about fathers and sons that you’re after, well today’s your lucky day. Really helps to know this stuff ahead of time, and now that we’re all on the same page, the million dollar question is how it fares as is.
As for the answer, well I guess I’m still working on it.
To give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with here, this script is structured in a way that makes it feel more like three movies than one. The first Act revolves around Gosling’s character, the second Act revolves around Cooper’s character and the final Act revolves around their sons. It’s highly unusual and I can imagine it won’t gel with certain folks (especially those who aren’t expecting it), but it actually works a whole lot better than I figured it would.
After all, given the attention-grabbing nature of stick-ups and all, it was almost disappointing to see the focus shift over from Gosling’s story to Cooper’s. By the time it happens, we’re already invested in Gosling’s character and we’re used to having him in the spotlight. Although if Hitchcock could pull it off, so can Derek Cianfrance. And while the shift is awfully sudden, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Cooper’s storyline was just as compelling as his co-star’s.
Alas, it’s hard to go into details about either of these storylines without giving something away, but the connecting thread between these two fathers is their habit of doing “bad” things for the “right” reasons. And as it interesting as it all was in the moment, it wasn’t until after that I really started to appreciate it.
As is usually the case with characters like, oh, I don’t know, Walter White, much of the appeal is generated by the moral ambiguity surrounding them. Folks tend to form their own opinions about characters like these, and even if they do, oh, I don’t know, cook meth, it can be hard not to sympathize with them (or even like them) at times. But, again, for reason I can’t get into, I felt like these two were pretty cut-and-dry judging by how they acted and reacted to everything that came their way. For me, the wrongs that they committed were grounded in such a grey area that their good intentions and the steps they take to make things “right” were enough to make me overlook most of their flaws. Unfortunately, it’s also a viewpoint that ended up muddling things for me towards the end.
Anyhow, that was the long and short of it, so when I finally made my way out of the theater and with the assumption that we were on the same page and all, I asked my wife what she thought about these two fellas. But wouldn’t you know, she had a totally different opinion on the matter. Alright, maybe it wasn’t totally different, but it varied enough to make me reassess some of the heavier stuff Derek Cianfrance puts them through.
So in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, it wasn’t until my wife chimed in that I realized how open to interpretation this movie is. Not only did it serve as one of my more eye-opening cinematic discussion points in recent memory, but I haven’t been able to get it off my mind since. It’s an uncommon strength that can be hard to do well, one that actually reminded me of Do the Right Thing. Furthermore, I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there that’s been mulling this over at length either. So yeah, it’s definitely got that going for it.
As a character study of sorts, it left me with no shortage of things to work out. And from its beautiful, eerie score to the way it quietly fades from one scene to the next, there was a lot about this movie that also reminded me of David Lynch. Throw that open-ended nature into the mix and you’ve got a style that really works, especially with everything taking place in the underbelly of an idyllic American town, the kind of place you’d expect Frank Booth to crawl out of. Oh yes, everything was going swell alright, right up until that damn final Act.
Now whether it’s turning to a life of crime or turning on your fellow officers, Gosling and Cooper are all about making drastic decisions in the first two Acts of this movie. As suspect as their decisions may be, they’re easy enough to justify since Gosling and Cooper have their backs against the wall when they make them. But when their sons take over in the last half-hour, the decision-making process changes from one of parental desperation to adolescent peer pressure. Just like their dads, these kids take some pretty drastic measures, but unlike their dads, the justification isn’t there thanks to the paper-thin motive that is peer pressure. As a result, it often feels more like drama for the sake of drama.
From one measure to the next, my wife and I found ourselves exchanging glances of frustration, shaking our damn heads in silent agreement. “What the fuck are they doing?,” we thought to ourselves, hoping for some kind of reprieve from the soul-crusher we’d entered into. And after a good two hours of smooth sailing, I can still only wonder as to why things took such a turn for the over-dramatic?
Speaking of over-dramatic, allow me to introduce you to Bradley Cooper’s son, A.J. He’s the one on the left in that picture down below, and rest assured, he is a douchebag. Not to say that douchebags make for bad characters, but in light of how believable and engaging every other character is, his entire being borders on intolerability in turn. At the risk of poking a beehive, he reminded me an awful lot of Telly from Kids, hands-down one of the most loathsome characters I’ve ever come across in a movie. It’s not that characters like Telly and A.J. are unrealistic or don’t have real-life counterparts who are just as ingratiating as they are, it’s that they come off more like caricatures than actual people. And if you’re trying to tell a real story about real people, caricatures are just no bueno. Really not sure why he was written that way.
But like I said, every other character and the individuals who play them are top notch. This might be the best performance of Bradley Cooper’s career, it’s business as usual for the great Ryan Gosling, and Dane DeHaan continues to be one to look out for. And as much as I like him, I can’t help but feel bad for Ben Mendelsohn. How many times is this poor guy gonna get typecast as the token slimeball? Starting to worry that he’s just stopped bathing at this point. Of all the roles to get pigeonholed into…
With all that being said, I realize that the Verdict up there might not be lining up with all the positive things I’ve had to say about The Place Beyond the Pines. And while there’s certainly a lot to appreciate, the one thing that’s stuck with me most is what an overly-punishing movie this was to sit through. I think the last time I’ve watched so many people make so many poor life choices like this was with the world’s worst brothers in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. As much as I liked that movie, it’s not one I plan on seeing twice. And like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I don’t know if The Place Beyond the Pines’ achievements are enough to outweigh its increasingly depressing qualities.
When I think back to what a buzzkill Blue Valentine was, maybe it’s my own fault for not mentally and emotionally prepping myself for Cianfrance’s sophomore effort. Then again, that last half-hour got way out of hand, and as the end closes in, you’ll be bracing yourself for the absolute worst. Still, I liked The Place Beyond the Pines and it’s a movie that I think will grow on me throughout the year. But at the end of the day, is a little bit of levity really so much to ask for?
Thank god I married a hugger.