(Bleach) Blond Ambition: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES


Some of the negative criticism heaped upon Derek Cianfrance’s film disparages it for being too ambitious. In an era where one can’t help but notice the utter lack of ambition and innovation in most commercial art house cinema, this complaint lazily comes off as nitpicking or frustration with the film’s unconventional structure, or perhaps just a visceral reaction to a 140-minute running time that doesn’t exactly breeze by.

Although not flawless, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES gets considerable momentum from its ambition. Rather than foolishly heralding it as the future of cinema, one could more wisely view it as an old-fashioned urban epic of the vintage Scorsese/Coppola/Cimino variety, albeit one with three distinct movements. The first (and best) revolves around Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who performs in a traveling carnival. On his latest round in Schenectady, he discovers he has an infant son as the result of a dalliance with Romina (Eva Mendes) during his last time in town. Moved by this revelation, he quits the carnival and sticks around to be a father to his child (even though Romina’s already selected another live-in boyfriend for this role). Work’s not easy to come by, so Luke soon turns to robbing banks with the help of off-the-grid mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, terrifically rickety). Hair bleached blond, body covered in cheap tattoos and only slightly more loquacious than his enigmatic character in DRIVE, Gosling is effortlessly intriguing—an entire feature centered on Luke could have made for something like a gentler, less nihilistic TAXI DRIVER.

However, in the film’s second movement, the focus shifts away from Luke and entirely onto Avery (Bradley Cooper), a young cop who first appears chasing after Luke following a botched bank job. Avery initially registers as the anti-Luke in terms of class (his dad’s an influential lawyer), and social status–he works on the right side of the law and has a wife and infant son he has no difficulty supporting. As with the disintegrating affair depicted in Cianfrance’s previous feature BLUE VALENTINE, not everything here is that black-and-white. Avery’s faced with a slew of ethical quandaries, both in relation to his own performance and his workplace. Although earnest in its attempt, this second movement doesn’t sustain the first’s energy and dark allure. Good as he is, Cooper just can’t match Gosling’s presence and magnetism. A lengthy tangent involving police department corruption (featuring a suitably slimy Ray Liotta) could have made for an interesting film on its own; to me, it felt like unnecessary padding.

Still, don’t write off the film just yet, for the third movement provides a much-needed jolt. Set 15 years later and centered on Luke’s and Avery’s now teenaged sons, it successfully ties together the legacies between the two generations and how each father’s fate is reflected in his son’s future. Again, it’s not as compelling as the earlier scenes with Gosling, although Dane DeHaan is excellent as Luke’s bottled-up son. Sure, Cianfrance could stand to edit a little more and not be so damn serious all the time, but he does expertly juggle his multiple narrative strands so that the ending achieves sufficient closure. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES isn’t as great as it could have been, but it shows that Cianfrance has the potential (and certainly the ambition) to one day make the cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel.  Grade: B+

One Response to (Bleach) Blond Ambition: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: