Thursday, May 2, 2013

Paternity as a Curse: The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines

The writer-director Derek Cianfrance first attracted attention with his ambitious second feature, Blue Valentine (2010), starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a young working-class couple whose marriage is imploding. A ferocious, frustrating, exciting movie, Blue Valentine had some clunky, obvious conceitsa symbolic dog, a surreally tacky love shack of a motel room called the “Future Room,” to hammer home the irony that it was there that the couple learned that a future was what their relationship didn’t have. It sometimes felt a little like a Cassavettes-style movie in which the actors had been jacked up to the sky and turned loose, with instructions to tear into each other until some unbearable Truths had been unearthed. But Cassavettes, whose theory of art boiled down to the notion that we’re at our most beautiful when we behave like hostile babbling drunks who a suicide hotline worker would hang up on, wouldn’t have known what to do with Ryan Gosling, who is that rare actor who, in the right role, can actually make being inarticulate seem like a poetic state and make undirected animal energy romantic.

In Blue Valentine, Cianfrance scrambled the time sequence, cutting back and forth between the characters’ courtship and the last, flailing hours of their marriage, in a way that indicated that the undeniable spark they had when they met was just the start of the emotional conflagration that would eventually make their lives together unworkable. It’s a measure of the ambition behind his new movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, that this time he sticks to a linear narrative structure that somehow feels more challenging than the structure of Blue Valentine. The movie’s title refers to the Mohawk word for Schenectady, but it also suggests an urban civilization that has become a trap, both for the poor and the downtrodden, who can’t find any way to improve their lot, and the privileged and successful, who are corrupted by the system and driven insane by their power and their more luxurious distractions. It’s a film about fathers and sons, and about fate, and a movie that means to drive the viewer to outrage while at the same time adhering to the gospel of Jean Renoir, that “the terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.” It aims at being a modern American Greek tragedy. It’s uneven and it falters, but not because Cianfrance doesn’t have the talent to back up his ambitions. His real problem is that his talent is too rich and unruly to be confined within the outmoded literary models he’s using to craft his masterpiece.

Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper
While you’re noticing the limitations of Cianfrance’s concept of “fate,” there are still amazing things to take in. Gosling plays Luke, an inked-up, bottle-blond daredevil and ladies’ man who works in a traveling circus, risking his life doing dumb stunts on his motorbike. When the circus passes through Schenectady, he runs into Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he had a fling a year earlier. It isn’t until the frisky Luke drops by her house that he discovers that he has a son, a discovery that compels him to quit the circus so he can become a responsible adult and stop living day to day. He wants to get a real job and become capable of supporting his boy, and lure Romina away from the man she’s with (played by Mayershala Ali), who doesn’t inspire the kind of wild, gorgeous emotions that come with looking out the window and seeing Ryan Gosling radiating open-hearted yearning in the rain, but who nonetheless offers gentleness, stability, and financial security. But the only work someone with Luke’s “unique” skill set can find is working with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a squirrely little guy with nicotine-stained fingers and a chop shop out in the woods. Luke gingerly asks Robin if there’s any way he can make any more money, but it seems amazing that Robin makes enough to live on himself. Then Robin mentions that he’s been known to rob a bank or two in his day. The trick, he tells Luke, is to not do it too many times, lest you make a nuisance of yourself and aggravate the cops.

Luke’s bank robberies and high-speed getaways are marvels of kinetic filmmaking, the kind that make you think that whatever Gosling’s stunt driver was paid, it wasn’t enough. Some fifty minutes into the story, they lead to the introduction of the second protagonist, Avery (Bradley Cooper), a 29-year-old cop who’s the son of a high-ranking judge (Harris Yulin). Avery chases Luke down after his last robbery and begins to acquire decorations and hero’s statusa mixed blessing, in that it puts him on the radar of the big swinging dicks in his department. (The biggest, most recklessly swinging of them all is a crooked cop played by Ray Liotta.) When Avery finally conquers his doubts and confusions and is on his way to transitioning into a successful politician, the movie jumps ahead fifteen years, and the focus shifts to his son, an unhappy, doped-up lout called AJ (Emory Cohen), and his new schoolmateJason (Dane DeHaan), who, though he doesn’t know it, is the son of the man on whose downfall Avery built his career.

As the pieces of the plot fall into place, you’re very aware of the reductive nature of “fate” as a dramatic concept, especially for a film trying to say something about class in contemporary America. The Place Beyond the Pines is set in a world where everyone’s life is set in stone from the moment they’re born; the most someone like Luke can do is to trade in a life that promises to be boring and doomed for one that’s equally doomed and considerably shorter, but that at least gives him the chance at some excitement. But even with this straight jacket of a conception, he and his actors supply more fresh, unruly signs of life than you get in a dozen movies sane enough to know their place. And he succeeds in his goal of getting the audience to feel deeply for his characters while pitting them against each other, and without sentimentalizing them. When Luke loses his cool and assaults Eva Mendes’ man, it’s both shocking and believable; the same unreflective, in-the-moment quality that makes him so appealing is also what can make him a menace. When he’s hauled into court, and the authority figures there sum him up as a thug with a history of violence, they’re completely right. But it’s also upsetting, because they don’t know him the way we do.

Dane DeHaan in The Place Beyond the Pines
Gosling has never been better, and Bradley Cooper has never been half as good as he is here, even in his recent breakthrough performance in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. (In the middle section, Cooper wears a doofusy haircut and what looks like prosthetic baby fat; he acts the part convincingly enough to overcome them, but it seems puzzling that Cianfrance didn’t just hire a younger actor, until the words “Fifteen Years Later” appear on the screen.) Ray Liotta is scary, and winning even in his scariness—and convincing as something other than an actorin a way that he hasn’t been since Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986). Dane DeHaan, who played a troubled adopted boy in the TV series In Treatment and the male Carrie White figure in last year’s found-footage thriller Chronicle, is extraordinary, and though Rose Byrne, who plays Avery’s wife, doesn’t have anywhere near enough to do, there’s a remarkable, brief moment when she looks at her husband on TV and it’s clear that the marriage is a goner. The standout supporting performance is Ben Mendelsohn’s, who is also used to slip a little surrealistic humor into this naturalistic movie: when Jason goes looking for him, fifteen years after the robberies, he finds him right where he used to be, and he’s also the only character who goes fifteen years without seeming to age, even though the way he looks at the start of the movie, he really should be long dead by the end of it. It’s as if this eternal sidekick was an eternal figure, never moving up or even moving on, so insignificant that even the police don’t care about him. It’s a relief to see that Cianfrance can see some humor in his “fate” folderal.

There’s one performance that doesn’t really work: Emory Cohen’s over-scaled, mush-mouthed AJ is like a young Donald Trump and the male cast members of Jersey Shore put in a blender, and it takes everything Dane DeHaan has to keep him from sucking all the air of their scenes. But there’s a spectacularly beautiful final image of one of the characters lighting out for parts unknown, scored to Bon Iver’s “The Wolves (Act I and II),” a song that has been waiting five years to be paired with this footage, so it can mean something. It bucks the hopelessness inherent in the movie’s fixation on fate, but at the same time, there’s enough fearful uncertainty underneath the scene that it expands the movie’s themes without subverting them. Many reviewers responded to Blue Valentine by calling it the kind of movie that made you look forward to the director’s next movie; that goes double, if not quadruple, for this one. Cianfrance puts his talent to a lot of misguided and wrong-headed purposes, but he gives you more reason to be hopeful about the future of movies than a dozen Terrence Malick wank jobs.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

1 comment:

  1. Solid review Phil. Honestly, I can’t recommend anyone see this full price because let’s be honest it is going to be on Netflix as soon as the DVD is release.