Friday, April 19, 2013

Modern Epic: The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance, unfolds like an epic novel, Dickensian in its scope, its twists of fate, and its connections between characters from various social statuses, as it explores the bond between fathers and sons over a period of seventeen years and examines choices and consequences, honesty and dishonesty, and vengeance and acceptance. Set in Schenectady, New York, the film starts with the poignant portrayal of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a wayward loser who does motorcycle stunts for a traveling carnival. When Luke, his arms covered with tattoos, his T-shirts full of holes, discovers that he has an infant son, he is spurred to act the father to the boy and to provide for the mother, Romina (Eva Mendes), but temptation leads him to make money by robbing banks, relying on his supreme confidence as a skillful motorcyclist for his getaways – the film’s most thrilling moments. But the pleasure I derived from viewing this film came from its many surprising layers and its shifting points of view, so I won’t ruin it for you by saying anything more about the plot.

Suffice it to say that this engrossing saga is well worth seeing. The cinematography closes in on the details of an ice cream joint and pulls long for vistas showing the piney ridges beyond the town - the place beyond the pines. I love the shot that follows Luke through the glitzy activity of the carnival. I also like the shot of Luke, framed by the colorful lights of the ferris wheel, after he parts with Romina in Schenectady; the same lights framing him when he is in a different town. Meanwhile, skillful camera angles and sharp editing inject the motorcycle sequences with tense excitement. The musical score, laced with forebodingly deep notes that call to mind the ominous scores of Bernard Herrmann, intensifies the drama, while the acting is excellent across the board.

Reminiscent of Marlon Brando when he mumbles shyly to Romina, Robert de Niro when he lashes out in anger, Steve McQueen when he jumps on his motorcycle and rides like hell, Gosling is engaging as the cool loser Luke Glanton (great name for an outlaw!) who tries to transform himself into a responsible father by ironically robbing banks. Eva Mendes, as Luke’s former lover, and Bradley Cooper, as a policeman, are both excellent. As Robin, Luke’s partner in crime, Ben Mendelsohn does another memorable take on the kind of greasy low-life he has played in Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly. Finally, Dane DeHaan is touching and believable as Luke’s adolescent son. Although the film’s final third slows down and wanders somewhat into predictable melodrama, The Place Beyond the Pines is the most enjoyable epic I’ve seen since . . . since . . . uh, since, well, I can’t remember the last epic I saw. Epics are a dying genre, but hopefully the solid structure and the stimulating vibrancy of this well-made saga will inspire other ventures as ambitious and satisfying as this one.

(Also - the dramatic poster is my favorite poster of the year so far.)

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