Film Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is Ryan Gosling and director Derek Cianfrance’s much-anticipated second collaboration following the critical success of Blue Valentine. It is the epic, sweeping story of Luke Glanton (Gosling), a lonesome, disenfranchised carnival stunt driver who turns to a life of crime to provide for his child, and Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the police officer whose job it is to apprehend him.

The progression of the story is a great source of interest in The Pines, and as such, I will not provide too much detail. The film is divided into three acts: the first concerning Glanton’s transition from stuntman to bank-robber; the second portraying Cross’ struggle against police corruption and the effect the Glanton case has on him; and the third, 15 years later, which follows the children of the protagonists.

The Pines is essentially a meditation on the legacy of a person’s actions: as the story unfolds we witness a divergence between what the characters intend and what actually transpires, imbuing the film with an ominous, fatalistic mood. The three acts play out in the style of a classical Greek tragedy, creating a feeling of inevitability which looms heavily over the protagonists. The director conveys this using a very naturalistic style, drawing the viewer into the minutiae of the characters and their relationships.

Unfortunately, the conflict between the sense of preordination and the naturalism intrinsic to Cianfrance’s storytelling leaves The Pines falling short of the modern masterpiece to which it aspires. The characters’ ability to communicate is imperfect; their sense of morality is undefined and constantly shifting: in other words, the traditional tropes of classical drama are subverted and replaced by ambiguity and shades of grey. This does not fit easily into the classical style: on one hand the trajectory of the narrative is clear and on the other it is ambiguous. It is as if Cianfrance couldn’t decide if he wanted to make the film plot-driven or character driven, so he decided to do both. This is frustrating because while some actions seem to be a logical (i.e. consistent with the genre) consequence of the narrative trajectory, they leave the viewer wondering why the character acted in such a way because he is too nuanced to conform to the archetype the genre demands.

Another smaller issue is the pacing: The Pines moves at a very deliberate pace, and while it seldom ceases to enthral, it would be a better film were it 20 minutes shorter. Frustratingly, this could easily have been achieved by editing down the side-story on police corruption, which – while poignantly mirroring Glanton’s moral ambiguity – detracts significantly from the momentum of the film.

Cianfrance has drawn some impressive performances from the cast. Gosling, in particular, juggles his character’s mix of coolness and instability with deft control, and Cooper, who has followed up Silver Linings Playbook with another powerful turn, absolutely vindicates his intention to be taken seriously as an actor.

Following his brilliant work on Shame, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt again excels in capturing the director’s lofty, arresting vision, using long, uninterrupted shots to convey a sense of realism and emotional weight reminiscent of Maryse Alberti’s work on The Wrestler. This is complemented by an eclectic score by Mike Patton (of Faith No More fame) which juxtaposes modern electronic sounds with sombre choral/orchestral music and haunting minimalist pieces.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a poignant, compelling, drama, littered with all the ingredients indicative of masterful filmmaking; frustratingly, it falls just short of greatness due to irreconcilable stylistic clashes and imperfect pacing.

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