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Vol. 12, No. 3, 2013
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Beyond The Walls
The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance's

Derek Cianfrance

reviewed by


Daniel Charchuk has been reviewing films for Arts & Opinion since 2012. His favourite films include Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. When not watching or reviewing movies, he can usually be found reading science fiction or playing video games.

Deep, laboured breathing; the background noises of a fair; children cheering and carnival music playing; the swishing and clicking of a switchblade knife. This is the opening soundscape of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, a lengthy and complex familial melodrama starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as two distinct men linked by a single act of violence. These sounds, played over a black screen displaying the opening credits, establish the main characters, distinctive setting and dominant themes of the film before a single shot is shown: working-class heroes, small-town America, inherited tragedy and the rippling effects of time. All this in merely a 30-second auditory tableau, foreshadowing the weighty thematic issues to come.

The subsequent main plot is actually a three-part, overlapping narrative set in and around the upstate New York town of Schenectady (with the English translation of its Mohawk-derived name from The Place Beyond the Pinesinspiring the ponderous title), involving four masculine protagonists, a fifteen-year time jump, and overarching themes of fatherhood and destiny. What’s unique about this narrative structure is that each act comprises its own self-contained plot, each building to a climax that leads into the next segment; it’s a rather inventive way of telling a sweeping story such as this.

It begins with Gosling’s character, a tattooed, bleached-blonde motorcycle stuntman named Luke Glanton, discovering that he has an infant son with his ex-lover Romina (a decidedly haggard-looking Eva Mendes), and subsequently quitting his job at the traveling fair to stay in town and try to care for his newfound family. This leads him to Robin (newly minted character actor Ben Mendelsohn), a backwoods auto mechanic with a sure-fire moneymaking scheme: bank robberies involving Luke’s motorcycle and Robin’s box truck as dual getaway vehicles. At first, it appears to be little more than a working-class version of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive: strong, silent-type protagonists played by Ryan Gosling, nearly wordless getaway sequences, multi-ethnic families that Gosling’s character longs to be a part of, and the use of long takes and fades to stylize and mythologize the criminal heroes. But Cianfrance’s approach is much simpler and more down-to-earth than Refn’s – his camerawork is more neorealist than post-modernist, his narrative is more microcosmic than mythic, and his song choices more Springsteen rock than ‘80s electronica. The result is a crime saga more concerned with concrete notions of family and tragedy than abstract concepts of meta-cinema, and accordingly a more grounded affair.

This distinction becomes clearer when the film smoothly (and shockingly) transitions into its second act, in which Cooper’s character, a patrol officer named Avery Cross wounded in the line of duty, navigates the corrupt Schenectady police department and contends with his overbearing wife (Rose Byrne) and disapproving father (Harris Yulin), a famous judge who wants his son to follow in his footsteps. Here the film becomes something more akin to a Martin Scorsese picture (ever-sleazy Ray Liotta is even present), albeit on a much smaller scale: crooked cops, shady drug deals and questionable morality in small-town America. Avery, as the moral centre of this act, is pulled in two extreme directions, and the comparisons to Luke are obvious (and stated explicitly): both are devoted family men with infant sons, and both are tempted to break the law in order to provide for their kin – Avery by accepting stolen money from his fellow officers in exchange for illegally removing cocaine from the evidence locker. Cianfrance makes the connection between the two men easily apparent in order to hammer home his point about class struggles – Luke, as part of the lower-class, cannot as easily refuse the life of crime to make ends meet as Avery, a middle-class policeman. A clichéd point, to be sure, but part of this film’s appeal comes from the manner in which it embraces traditional clichés – the one straight-laced cop in a department of crooked ones, for instance – in order to colour in the details of its world and more successfully ground it in reality.

It is only in the final act of the film, then, where the seemingly disparate plot strands are drawn together into a singular package, at once emphatically declaring the film’s thesis statement and leaving the door open for interpretation. Following a blankly declarative ‘15 years later’ screen (usually the indicator of an epilogue rather than an entire third act), the narrative settles on AJ and Jason, the two sons of, respectively, Avery and Luke, now teenaged and troubled. Brought together by their mutual love of illegal substances – specifically marijuana – and unaware of each other’s lineage, they bond over weed, their outsider status and their complicated relationships with their parents – with neither really knowing their fathers. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the two eventually become aware of their fathers’ tragic connection, and come to blows over it, destroying a burgeoning friendship before it can ever really begin. The true tragedy, Cianfrance seems to be saying, is that the two might have been friends, if not for their fathers. And herein lies his overall message: that the sins of the father, no matter how trivial, trickle down and impact the sons for generations to come. A Biblical message, to be sure, but in a film full of religious meaning (an early scene that has Luke silently witness his son’s baptism at first seems extraneous, but its importance later becomes clear), it feels right at home. Cianfrance’s methods may be broad, clichéd and obvious, but in order to tell a story as epic, sweeping and meaningful as this, it somehow seems necessary.

Cianfrance’s previous feature, Blue Valentine, starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a deteriorating couple at two different points in their marriage – the beginning and the end – and shares much formally and thematically with this picture: a shifting chronology, the ripple effects of time and the importance of family. But in The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance has widened his scope and expanded his reach, focusing on not just two people, but also everyone else affected by their actions. In doing so, the director attempts to position his film as a kind of microcosm for humanity – a lofty goal, to be sure. And though he doesn’t entirely succeed – his movie is far too ponderous and grandiose to really be taken seriously as anything more than what it is – it is better to have grasped for greatness and fallen short than not to have reached at all.



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