Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

I’ve always been suspicious of people who describe the narrative of cinema as “acts” – that’s the argot (and indeed the structure) of theatre. Film is different medium, and fluid in a way that theatre could never be. Theatre doesn’t have edits and, as Bunuel pointed out, where you cut from one scene to another is where the magic happens.

But fuck me, it’s difficult to approach Derek Cianfrance’s ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ without discussing its three acts. And believe me, I really don’t want to talk about the structure because that would mean, at the very least, heavily hinting at a spoiler which occurs at roughly the one-hour mark. A spoiler, moreover, that genuinely took me by surprise since the trailers and advertising for the film had led me to expect a self-contained crime drama focussing entirely on Ryan Gosling’s stunt rider turned bank robber.

What we have instead is a sprawling melodrama that stretches across two generations. The basic set up is simple: the circus comes back to town after a year (“town” being Schenectady; a tip of the hat to the American friend who explained that the name is a Mohawk word for which the title is a literal translation, otherwise I’d have scratched my head for two hours twenty minutes wondering what bearing it had on anything) and Gosling tries to rekindle things with old flame Eva Mendes. Only to find that she has a child and a new bloke. Discovering the child is his, he tries to edge out the competition but when he’s reminded that his familial responsibilities have a fiscal element, he resorts to desperate measures. So far so good. In fact, so far so freaking excellent. The first hour of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ showcases a measured but intense filmmaking style redolent of the 1970s. Gosling is superb and the robbery scenes are immediate, exciting and squeamishly tense.

Then the focus drifts from Gosling’s loose cannon with, if not a heart of gold, then at least a vaguely human centre, and Bradley Cooper’s idealistic rookie cop assumes centre stage. An idealist rookie cop who soon finds himself hemmed in by his colleagues’ corruption. And before you can say “ ‘Serpico’-lite” we’re hauling ass for Cliché Central. But even this second act benefits from the best work Cooper has done onscreen, and a genuinely murky moral quandary as, in trying to extricate himself honourably, he comes to rely on the Mephistophelean guidance of his high court judge father, a man whose whiskey exterior belies a cynically political mindset.

Even with this dip in quality control, I’d happily have considered ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ something of a success. Sadly, the third act swandives from the top storey of Cliché Central into the fetid alleyways of Shit City. A jarring flash forward has Cooper’s character simultaneously enjoying the rewards and paying the price for his earlier decision while his over privileged asshole son forms a manipulative relationship with guess who’s offspring. At this point I was face-palming in the cinema, wondering if even Dickens would have back-pedalled from this kind of coincidence. Not only are the stakes lower in this concluding section, but the young actors do a pretty shabby job. Whether this is due to their lack of facility, or Cianfrance being more at home with mature actors, I’m still not sure.

The prosecution would also like to introduce into evidence how little Mendes, third-billed, is given to do, and how similarly wasted the talented and highly capable Rose Byrne is.

Following the Cianfrance’s previous collaboration with Gosling on the unflinching honest ‘Blue Valentine’, it’s tempting to file ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ under D for disappointment … except that its first hour is just so damn good. I almost wish the whole thing had been a POS. That would have hurt less than watching it lose the way on what should have been a straight-as-an-arrow route to modern classic status.


David said...

Cheers Neil. As always a highly intelligent and interesting review of a film I'm still tempted to see.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, David. For all the problems in its second and third acts, 'The Place Beyond the Pines' is still worth seeing, and certainly on the big screen, for the gritty immediacy of its first hour.