REVIEW: 'The Place Beyond the Pines'
The Place Beyond the Pines is best understood in three parts. The first part is about Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), an inside-out t-shirt-wearing stunt motorcyclist who unknowingly fathers a son, Jason, with Romina (Eva Mendes), and attempts to support his new family by robbing banks. The middle act introduces a slew of new characters and subplots, including Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the officer who hunts down Luke, the corruption within the police department and Cross’ relationship with his own infant son, AJ. The third and final act pits Jason and AJ, now teenagers, against each other in what can only be best described as an epilogue.
Any film that depicts multiple generations is a pretty ambitious. Not only do you have to develop two generations of characters, you have to establish the relationships within and between those generations. It took The Godfather 583 minutes over three films to do that. (Okay, there’s Vincent Corleone, but the third still focuses on Michael.) Pines is engrossing and there are some wonderful performances – Ben Mendelsohn, in particular – but you get the feeling all of the characters could be developed even more, though the film already feels much longer than its 140-minute runtime.
There are different ways to establish how different generations are related in film. One of the most popular is to “time travel” through an object, usually through a close-up, like Tom Hanks’ (uh, I mean, old guy who looks nothing like Matt Damon) eye in Saving Private Ryan. A second way is to have two parallel storylines, like in The Godfather Part II. Another is to have a title card saying x amount of time has passed. (Full disclosure: I dislike this method the most.)
Time in Pines is revealed through dialogue and context. We learn through dialogue that after spending one night together Luke and Romina haven’t seen each other in a year. We learn how much time has passed through context when Avery stops limping after a gunshot wound. It’s clever writing and editing, never having to get bogged down by exposition. But this is exactly why it’s so jarring when Cianfrance decides to splash “15 YEARS LATER” across the screen.
15 YEARS LATER.
The more I think about it, the more it bugs me.
15 YEARS LATER.
The film just spent two hours fleshing out the events of a single year and within a millisecond we’re transported 15 years into the future. Excuse me while I check if there’s a reel, or 15, missing.
The third act feels tacked on and almost destroys the groundwork of the first two acts. Luke and Avery’s stories are long and winding, but it keeps you rooted into your seat because their storylines are unpredictable. One of the film’s themes is that men, both good and bad, are often sucked into situations beyond their control. Luke turns to crime and Avery gets sucked into a department-wide corruption ring, but these two storylines are resolved before the title card. What gives?
Anyway, 15 years later, AJ, despite Avery’s respected position as a district attorney, and Jason, who has been raised by Romina and his stepfather, both happen to be troubled teenagers. The rough explanation: Avery is an absentee father and Jason is the angst-y kid with bangs who has severe daddy issues. They also both happen to attend the same high school. Convenient. (Avery, how can you not keep tabs on the kid whose father you killed? Rookie mistake. And when’s the last time a district attorney sent his kid to a public school?)
This epilogue doesn’t reveal much about Avery’s character and even less of Luke. Instead, we learn that all teenagers are terrible human beings in spite of family background (not a bad idea to begin with, actually), that “loner stoners” will always seek each other out in a crowded high school cafeteria and that stoners will only bond when they buy $500 worth of ecstasy together. If all else fails, rob a prescription drug store, which will then undoubtedly lead to a life of further crime and broken families. Tragic.
What happened in those 15 years that caused AJ and Jason’s lives to go off the rails? The relationship between AJ and Jason is so loosely tied and glossed over it becomes laughable, nothing more than a convenient vehicle to bridge the second and third acts.
It’s too bad the third act relies on so many clichés to pull itself to the finish line. AJ is the poorly adjusted and troublemaking son of a wealthy public official who realizes his past wrongs all too quickly. After getting arrested, verbally and physically assaulted by his father and then beating up another kid, he’s somehow turned over a new leaf by attending what can only be described as a “magical” press conference. But, hey, I guess a few waves from his newly elected attorney general dad and a few rounds of applause can make the darkest of hearts turn golden. Hell, when Obama spoke at the 2004 DNC, it nearly turned me into a half-decent person, too.
Jason, as Luke’s son, has obviously grown an affinity for bikes already when we meet him. Jason also eats ice cream, which Luke fed him when he was an infant, and even mails Romina an old photo of them together, though it’s not known for sure if it was out of spite or love. The Glantons even have a dedicated, follow-the-back-of-my-head camera angle. As if that wasn’t enough, guess what’s the last shot? Yup, Jason riding a new bike into the wilderness.
The major relationships in the film are strictly male-male and it’s unfortunate that Romina and Jennifer, Cross’ wife, suffer from underdevelopment. Both are vastly more interesting than AJ or Jason. The husband-wife and mother-child dynamic is completely ignored by Cianfrance, when it’s pretty clear in those 15 years AJ and Jason have developed complicated relationships with their mothers.
“If you ride like lightning, you’ll crash like thunder,” says Robin Van Der Zee when he takes Luke under his wing. What a fantastic line. What a sense of excitement and dread at the same time. It’s too bad The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t end with a final roar of Luke’s bike, but rather spends the last half hour putt-putting around on a tricycle.
The good: the Drive-like introduction of Luke, Ben Mendelsohn, Luke’s bike, Ryan Gosling, everything about the first bank robbery, the Luke-Avery showdown, shots of Schenectady, Ray Liotta, and babies eating ice cream
The bad: the third act, underdeveloped female characters, plodding pace and ineffective soundtrack.
What did you think of The Place Beyond the Pines? Did its operatic scope blow you away, or was it all just too much story for your taste? Sound off in the comments section below, and if you liked this review, check out some of our others here: