Derek Cianfrance has done it again with The Place Beyond The Pines, creating a beautifully gut-wrenching tour de force which knocks you on your ass emotionally, but keeps you hooked through the harrowing storytelling brought to life by a cast of extraordinary actors.
Unfortunately for some it can become a bit of a butt-numb-athon, subjecting audiences to almost two and a half hours of heartfelt dramatics, but that’s only because Cianfrance has so much engrossing content crammed into only one movie. It’s obvious that Derek has no shortage of ideas, and it’s also obvious that his directorial prowess is something to marvel, but sometimes viewers can only take so much emotional abuse before they fall victim to a sensory overload of human struggles.
Not to say The Place Beyond The Pines suffers from such an over-bloated fate, but the lengthy run-time can become apparent, exemplified by the numerous times other audience members in my screening glanced at their phone after the hour and a half mark – but not me.
While inarguably lengthy, I certainly wouldn’t say Cianfrance’s journey is an arduous or unpleasant one. While I can admit twenty minutes or so could have possibly been trimmed from the film, it remains a chore trying to pinpoint exactly where some extra edits could have been made. Everything left in the final cut absolutely belongs there and advances the story as necessary, solidifying The Place Beyond The Pines as a hefty character-driven tale with ambitious ideals. As a viewer you know it’s probably too long, but as an analyst you can’t exactly tell why.
Or maybe it’s because we’re distracted by Cianfrance’s beautifully well thought-out shot selection which heightens drama and intensity in certain moments. For proof I point to my favorite sequence in the film where a rugged, dirty, and derelict looking Ryan Gosling walks into a church full of townsfolk wearing nothing but their Sunday best. Noticing how out of place he is, Gosling makes his way through the back and sits in the corner, hinting shame and regret. The camera then sticks to Gosling and his sad realization, accentuating his lonesome outsider feelings, until Gosling breaks down in heavy tears. A powerfully sad scene made infinitely more somber by profoundly insightful filmmaking – a cinematic trait which separates the wannabes from the professionals.
Cianfrance puts himself out there and presents a narrative that’s like a 3-part relay-race in terms of pacing, handing the “main focus” baton off between three characters in succeeding fashion. He could have easily cut-up The Place Beyond The Pines Tarantino-style and presented a more interlocking delivery, but I commend Derek for sticking with his chronological setup, one that actually felt more complete – to me at least.
I admired how each smaller story was neatly wrapped up when shown in full before the next, like opening and closing a chapter in a book, and the effects of each could be felt lingering with each new character’s situation. Cianfrance’s choice may seem longer and more drawn out, but emotionally his direction strikes a mighty chord which pays off in spades.
With mentioning Cianfrance’s innate ability to always score quality performances from all his cast, one also has to recognize the brilliant work every actor channels for their fearless leader.
From Ryan Gosling to Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes to Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan to Emory Cohen – you can’t help but to marvel at how each actor gets lost in their respective character. Whether it’s Eva donning a tattered T-shirt, ripped jean shorts, and battered emotional scars, or Ryan transforming into this tattoo-covered, motorcycle riding, badass super-carny bank robber, there’s tremendous amounts of depth brought to each and every character – warranting such a daunting run-time.
Focusing in the two most beautiful, engaging, memorable, and downright captivating performances isn’t hard though, as Bradley and Ryan make Cianfrance look like a genius just by putting them on-screen.
Getting back to Ryan, there aren’t enough words in the English language to accurately describe just how jaw-dropping a role Luke became because of Gosling’s full-blown immersion into this blonde-haired multi-dimensional personality. Don’t believe me? Gosling completely transformed at his own will just to eat, sleep, and breathe Luke. The tattoos were all his idea, his outburst during the baptism wasn’t scripted, and all these little improvisational additions helped build the numerous layers around Luke which make him an on-screen spectacle.
He was the perfect blend of unpredictable yet problematic, sweet-natured yet emotionally-unfit, confident yet jaded – Gosling plays the ruffian seeking redemption arc with the best. We already knew Ryan’s emotional depth and capacity for excellence from Blue Valentine, but The Place Beyond The Pines seals the deal on Gosling’s campaign to become one of the elite leading men in Hollywood.
Bradley Cooper’s dominance on-screen was a nice surprise though, diving into a role that the underutilized and often pigeonholed performer doesn’t always get offered. Cooper bravely stepped out of the safety of cheap laughs and silly date movies into a character piece written specifically to show a new side to a man most known for getting drunk and playing detective.
His character Avery often dances the line between morality and corruption, and Cooper’s sincere characterization often sways audience member’s opinions from side to side as well. Should I respect him? Should I detest him? Are his intentions pure or misguided? Cooper’s ability to mask these answers in a shroud of emotional uncertainty becomes an extremely impressive part of The Place Beyond The Pines, and also turns Avery into a charismatic, mysterious lead character comparable to Gosling’s Luke.
Don’t think I’m downplaying Mendes, Mendelsohn, or the two child stars Cohen and DeHaan though. During the final hand-off in story when DeHaan and Cohen are given a large focus, I was just as entranced watching the two boys struggle with their now storied pasts as I was watching both Gosling and Cooper. Both boys showed the complete opposite reactions to similar family situations, and we watch brilliantly as the duo hurdle dangerously towards one another like two defective missiles targeted right at each other. DeHaan, nerdy and bottling anger, and Cohen, the too-fly white guy, command tremendous amounts of respect while keeping the full cast in mind, and both show bountiful amounts of talent-filled promise.
Derek Cianfrance brings a honest humility, bleakness, and dingy realism to The Place Beyond The Pines, creating a mainstream/independent hybrid of a film which seems absolutely unmanageable at such a long run-time, but resourcefully makes use of every single second. You’ll feel the length, comprehend your day or night flying by you, but find yourself too connected to care.
Between an extremely grounded cast featuring career defining roles and dynamite direction from one of the most exciting upcoming directors in the business, I’m left feeling nothing but genuine awe after letting the entire experience of The Place Beyond The Pines soak in. Style, grace, conceptual integrity, sobering grief, dramatic family dynamics, redemption, revival – Derek Cianfrance has created the first film of 2013 to leave me speechless and searching for more glorious praise. I think that’s enough for now though, I’ve drilled home my point, right?
Derek Cianfrance leads us on a long, gritty, humanly flawed, densely emotional journey beyond the pines and it's hard not to recognize his brilliant vision and execution upon reaching the final destination.