Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 05, 2013 3:53 pm 
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Epic noir

Derk Cianfrance, whose Blue Valentine (2010) featured unusually impressive acting by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, works with Gosling again in The Place Beyond the Pines, but the material is completely different. The first movie depicted a young couple's marriage gone bad in scrambled, reverse chronoligical order. Pines has an ambitious three-part structure, the last part a kind of sequel set fifteen years after the first two, and all in a doggedly straight time sequence. It made me miss the scrambled approach that had annoyed me in Blue Valentine, because Pines' story cries out for some imaginative skipping around to pull together its disparate segments. Pines is an exciting, obviously ambitious piece of work, and again Cianfrance gets great work from his cast. The new movie is long on atmosphere and it creates the structure of an epic Greek tragedy. It is short on storytelling. Besides the big leaps, there are gaps, which point up how slimly the characters are developed. And the milieu of the several families is slim too, meaning the atmosphere is not so great as it seemed. Overreaching like this attracts passionate admirers and equally intense debunkers. But the whole thing is still a lot of fun. If only every character was as intense and doomed as Luke (Gosling) and his grown son Jason (Dane DeHaan of In Treatment and John Hillcoat's Lawless) we'd have something like the powerhouse Australian gangster film Animal Kingdom. But Animal Kingdom puts almost everybody together in a box and happens during a short period of time, which allows David Michôd's story to come to a boil that The Place Beyond the Pines, unfortunately, can never achieve with its chopped-up and spread-out triple storyline.

What everybody points out is that Pines grows dull in the middle because it switches from Ryan Gosling to Bradley Cooper. Gosling, who partly reprises his Drive role here, may be silly with his googly face -- he's sexy without being good-looking -- and bleach-blond hair, his "photoshopped" upper body scattered all over with homemade tattoos, but even without the mythical focus of Drive's protagonist this actor knows how to hold the screen, and when he strarts robbing banks he exploodes like a roman candle. Cooper has gained cred since he's switched from Hangovers to Silver Linings. He has a sterling quality and sensitivity (both hollow as the story plays out), but his educated cop and son of privilege can't hope to compete with Gosling's fire power. Luke is a carny motorcycle stunt rider turned bank robber -- to support his illegitimate child (Jason) born to Romina, or "Ro," (Eva Mendez) after a one-night stand. No secondary characters match Eva Mendez as the baby's mom, not to mention Ben Mendelsohn (himself an alumnus of Animal Kingdom) as Luke's sidekick and partner in crime, Robin -- not even with Ray Liota as a corrupt cop in part two. Besides that there is Ro's black boyfriend, Kovi (Mahershala Ali), whose awkward and unavoidable presence stands out a mile.

All this happens a while ago, back when you could smoke in a diner and computers were blocky and white, so that "fifteen years later" presumably is something like the present time. It all happens in Schenectady, New York, site of Kaurfman's even more polarizing epic monodrama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York. Why Schenectady? I don't know, though "place beyond the pines" is a translation of the native American place name, and characters wander in the pines from time to time. Nor do I understand why in part three Avery (Cooper) is suddenly saddled with a jerk of a son called A.J. (Emory Cohen) sent to live with him from Troy, NY by his ex-wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne), and placed into the same high school with Jason. How did the prim and proper Jennifer manage to raise such a gangsterish lout? This is where you start thinking about the report that the Pines script went through 35 drafts, wrangled by Cinafrance with two others (Ben Coccio and Darius Marder). Anyway, though Avery's remotely-raised son is a foul-mouthed offense every time he appears on screen, part three belongs to Dane DeHaan, who gets the classic Tom Jones job of finding out who his father was and doing something about it. There is an inner conviction and edge even to DeHaan's distinctive voice that makes him, after all, the worthy son of Gosling. We can hope as he rides off toward the West on a motorcycle that he will have a better fate than his father.

How can this resolve anything, though? What we have here are three stories, and while in theory Cianfrance & Co. generate "the complexity of a novel" with them, the movie cannot adequately fill in such complexity in two hours and twenty minutes. What it does is whet one's appetite and then try one's patience. Unhappily the rush generated in part one can't sustain its way through part two, and part three is -- just another story. To even try to include all this -- the noir myth of doomed working class criminal, the realistic study of a corrupted son of privilege, then back to myth for the heightened drama of sons saddled with fathers they never knew -- you'd need at least a mini-series. To do a novel or tell any tale that encapsulates a long history, feature film length often isn't enough. These two sons moreover barely know each other, or their fathers, nor do we really get to know them. The Place Beyond the Pines is a victim of screenwriters' overreaching. But with such acting and such excitement, and yes, such ambition, I found this a pretty thrilling watch. It may have to be chalked up in writing terms as a failure, but if so it's still more interesting than most of this year's successes thus far.

The Place Beyond the Pines debuted at Toronto in Sept. 2012, opened in France 20 March 2013 (well received: AlloCiné press rating 3.6 based on 28 reviews), opened (limited) in the US 29 March; UK, 12 April. Screened for this review on its opening day in San Francisco, 5 April 2013.

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