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Posted April 6, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Drama
 
 

Place Beyond the Pines: Starts Out Great but Devolves into Soap Opera

“The Place Beyond the Pines” represents something of a step back for filmmaker Derek Cianfrance. His first feature, “Blue Valentine” (2010), starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, a near-masterpiece in my book, was so good and audacious that Cianfrance must have felt terrible anxiety about his follow-up.

One’s greatest fear after a major success, of course, is that you won’t be able to wow people again. You fear you’ll be a one-hit wonder. The bad news is that “The Place Beyond the Pines” is inferior to “Valentine.” It is nowhere near as innovative or trenchant as the previous film.

But the good news is that “Pines” isn’t terrible — far from it. At its best, “Pines” is beautifully elegiac, tough, and soul-searching. It is one of the better films of the year, probably the best film of 2013 so far. There is also a stunner of a supporting performance from a young actor named Emory Cohen, who plays the teenage son of Bradley Cooper’s character. Cohen gives Gosling a run for his money in the acting department. Take note of Mr. Cohen’s name. You heard it here first. He may be the next Ryan Gosling.

“Pines” is good enough to allay any fears that Cianfrance will be a one-hit wonder. He will surely have a rich and long career as one of America’s best and most interesting filmmakers. But it can’t be denied that there is some cause for concern. While it has many great elements, “Pines” at its worst (especially in its last 30 minutes) veers into melodrama, even bordering on soap opera.

Yes, the last part of the film includes Emory Cohen’s jaw-droppingly wonderful performance, but it also contains some gooey soap opera. Cianfrance has to figure out why the project came off the rails in the end. He needs to retool himself by thinking carefully about the difference between drama and melodrama.

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“Pines” is a triptych, with three discrete but inter-related stories told chronologically. Part of the film’s underwhelming quality is its artless editing. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. A, B, then C. A little flat. This is a startling contrast to the sumptuously artistic and yet somehow under-stated editing in “Blue Valentine,” where Cianfrance intercut between two time periods organically and beautifully. I can still remember some of the breathtaking cross-cuts in “Valentine.”

In Story 1 Ryan Gosling, returning to work with Cianfrance after their triumph with “Valentine,” plays a tattooed, bleached-blond, semi-educated mechanic earning subsistence wages as a stunt cyclist in a dilapidated traveling carnival. When we meet him at the start of the film, he and the carnival are in the middle of nowhere in Upstate New York.

(Officially it’s Schenectady, which is near Albany, but it could be anywhere. The word Schenectady, incidentally, is based on the original Mohawk name for the area, and it would be translated as The Place Beyond the Pines.)

A former girlfriend of the cyclist (played reasonably well by Eva Mendes) stops by the carnival to see him. When he shows up unannounced the following day at her house, he gets the surprise of his life. I won’t say what the surprise is, but I’ll say that it is a plot turn you’ve seen a million times before. A hundred million. While it’s familiar, it’s not without pathos. There’s a reason this story element has been used so much: it cuts to the heart of human longing.

The focus of Story 1 is his attempt to deal with this surprise and how deeply it affects him. It leads him to commit several crimes. Suddenly that story comes to a violent end, involving a police officer, played well by Bradley Cooper. Cooper’s growth into a serious dramatic actor has been a joy to watch these past couple years. I love how much he has defied expectations, much the way Mark Wahlberg did 10 years ago.

Story 2 focuses on this cop and his grief over the violence that brought Story 1 to an end. He becomes embroiled in a police-corruption case, where he is the star witness against his fellow officers. This is the first moment when “Pines” starts to lose some control of itself. The corruption seems like it’s coming in from some other movie. Although it is filmed effectively, with Ray Liotta in a small but commanding performance as the precinct’s poisonous ring leader, this is the point at which “Pines” starts to feel bloated with too many story elements.

The police corruption also gives the film a simplistic, melodramatic good-versus-bad quality, contrasting Gosling’s law-breaker with Cooper’s saintly do-gooder. This gave the middle of the film an obvious, sentimental quality that was a little disappointing. But the Cooper story is interesting, and one can palpably feel how much courage it took for this young officer to stand up to his entire police precinct. It was genuinely heroic, if a bit simple as a story.

“Pines” then jumps forward 15 years for Story 3. Gosling’s and Cooper’s sons are in the same high school and both doing drugs. When they meet each other for the first time, they bond immediately and spend an entire day together. They also end up in jail later that night.

I don’t want to reveal all the plot details. I’ll just say that Cooper is very disturbed to learn that his son has befriended Gosling’s son. To me this was the most interesting aspect of the film. At times it seems that Cooper loves Gosling’s son more than he loves his own son! This flip of affections from one boy to another is fascinating and disturbing. What makes Emory Cohen’s performance so extraordinary is that you see glimmers of it in his eyes, without there being a single word of dialogue stating it outright. You see a crushed boy who senses that his father doesn’t love him.

Unfortunately the film doesn’t devote much attention to this and gets distracted by Gosling’s son, who wanders around in a fog of bitterness and recrimination that feels more predictable than interesting. When violence ensues in the end, I began rolling my eyes. The film had stopped contemplating anything by that point and began to drown in gunfire and soap-opera cliches.

There’s a lot to love about “Pines,” and it’s very much worth seeing. I am eager to see where Cianfrance goes from here and excited to see how Emory Cohen develops as an actor.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.