Monday, April 22, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes (140 min.)

The Place Beyond The Pines is a visual essay on the sins of the father and its influence across generations.  If that sentence sounds a bit bold and broad, then it does its job to describe this film.  It is bold and broad, but never uninteresting, always engaging despite its hefty length, and it left me with a great deal of information to process.  Sometimes, all I ask is for a movie to challenge me a little, to throw ideas at me with great conviction and worry about the consequences some other time.  My favorite films are the ones that keep me thinking about them several days afterward even if they may not be "perfect."  Pines is that type of film.  As sprawling and unfocused as it might get on occasion, it never left me wanting, and it will most certainly keep me thinking for a few days more.

I will try and tread lightly in any sort of synopsis for fear of spoiling the developments, and there are enough to fill two films.  Ryan Gosling, littered with jailhouse tattoos and greasy blond hair, plays Luke.  Luke is a drifter and a loser, working as a motorcycle stunt driver for a traveling carnival.  We see him in action in an intense opening sequence where he whips around a metal globe at high speeds with two other stuntmen.  After his show he runs into Romina (Eva Mendes, looking appropriately tired), an old flame he shared a night with his last run through town.  He discovers Romina had a son, his infant son, Jason, and this new information stirs emotion that had long been buried within him.  Despite Romina's protests, Luke is determined to be a part of his son's life.  He quits the carnival and tries to find steady work in town to provide for Romina and Jason, finding only spare work with another local burnout, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), in a shack hidden in the woods of Upstate New York.

Robin suggests to Ben that he rob banks.  He has the skills as a motorcycle stuntman to flee the scene, and with Robin's help he could make some quick cash.  Luke succeeds early and becomes driven by his newfound income.  He wants to do more banks, then two in one day, until one day his paths cross with a young beat cop whose quick thinking propels his story into the picture.  The young cop is Avery, played by a sqeaky-clean Bradley Cooper as a young family man with a year-old son of his own.  Avery becomes a hero and sees his own career take off, but not before he uncovers corruption within the Force.  This is where it might be best for me to stop summarizing the film; anywhere I go from here would spoil the events of the second and third acts.  Let me just say Pines is split firmly into three acts, each of which could function as their own individual film.

The story travels over time, at least fifteen years and a few months, and deals in the currency of sins across generations.  The sins of Gosling's Luke have their impact on young Jason, as do the sins of Avery impact the life of his own child.  But what do these end results say of the sins committed by their fathers?  And there is another father in the film, a New York judge who has his own influence on his son.  Pines is a dense and complicated film, and has very many ideas, notions, and themes to digest.  Director Derek Cianfrance - who also directed Gosling in Blue Valentine - aims high here and his film hits all the right tonal notes.  The score is inky and rough around the edges, mirroring the characters on the screen and propelling a great deal of emotion throughout.  And he handles the action scenes with immediacy; the motorcycle chase scenes vibrate off the screen.  I could write an extended essay on so many different aspects of the picture, but I will save that for another time when it feels acceptable to work in spoilers.

There is little doubt (though I am sure it could be argued elsewhere) that Ryan Gosling is the supreme talent of his generation, some sort of powerful cocktail of Brando, McQueen, Paul Newman, and a young Mickey Rourke.  He commands the screen even as he whispers his lines and his eyes show sadness and depth.  If Gosling is the top of the heap, Bradley Cooper is quickly becoming next in line (if he would only cut out those Hangover movies already).  Cooper is shaping his career as an intense actor with powerful conviction in his characters.  Mendes is soulful and perfect as the emotionally wounded Romina, and supporting performances from Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta are spot on.  This cast masks any warts that may show up with the structure or the focus of the film.  Maybe Cianfrance tries to do or say too much here (for some anyway), but I am okay with it.  Even as I type these words my admiration for the ambition of the film grows.  Because, as I said, The Place Beyond The Pines will keep me thinking for days after leaving the theater.