Tuesday, 23 April 2013
The Place Beyond The Pines (2013, Derek Cianfrance)
Derek Cianfrance's second feature film is so far reaching, so widely scoped, and bogged down by its own ambitious weight it feels as if it's been adapted from a famously difficult text. A text that's always on the brink of becoming disastrous as it makes the transition to the screen.
This is not the case, however, as Cianfrance and his co-writers have sculpted an 'original' drama despite feeling novelistic in its dense and sprawling nature. As the narrative begins to restart itself, so to speak, several times after a defining cataclysmic action early on, we're guided through several setups that feel knowingly cliched. Never, though, are we quite sure where the film is taking us and in exploring these hackneyed tropes one feels the film is exploring (among other concerns) the idea of cliches head on; of self fulfilling prophecies, of predetermination, and a truth that cliches exist because they're a fact of the cyclical nature of life.
We respond to cliches in cinema because they're familiar and represent a truth no matter how vague or obscured, we often become cliches ourselves due to these rooted truths, and we often turn into cliches blindly or even by actively renouncing them. In the case of the characters present in The Place Beyond The Pines, their fulfilment (or lack thereof) comes blindly as if events are out of their control. They're part of a cosmic fatality unable to look from the outside in, as we do.
Ryan Gosling is introduced in a stunning (yet unashamedly scruffy) tracking shot as he goes to work; he is a traveling stunt motorcyclist named Luke who in this opening shot rides circles around two other moving bikers in a modestly sized spherical steel cage. The imagery and atmosphere does more than enough to race your heart. Upon discovering that a previous fling (Eva Mendes) has resulted in a son, Luke deserts his rootless lifestyle in a bid to raise the baby and support them both, a pressure that mounts until he resorts to a life of crime in order to provide, a path that ultimately leads him to a confrontation with an idealistic cop played by Bradley Cooper on top form. This fateful showdown provides a jumping off point for the film, as an act of violence changes both men's lives which in turn causes a rippling effect throughout their family's future generations, a curse-like bind that seems intent on echoing for eternity.
Questions of masculinity sit at the heart of the film; questions of what it is to be a man, to be a father. Others include how much of our lives are preordained and how little power we have over who we are and will become. Like his previous film, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance creates an overwhelming sense of loss and melancholy, creating a genuine feeling of time passing. Here, the years rest very heavily on the picture just as they should while purveying multiple lives ruined by a single event. Unlike Blue Valentine which clung to a central couple and followed them throughout, Pines leapfrogs several times to focus on different characters and must therefore reboot its narrative drive accordingly, a move that highlights its ambition while stifling it.
During the film I was reminded of the cinema of Cassavetes, of Coppola, and even Kazan at times, perhaps due to the novelistic sweep of a film combined with an unfazed, gritty worldview full of Catholic representation and a littering of father figures. Despite tinkering in the bleak there is a poetry present that tinges it with a welcome warmth at times. Cianfrance's camera isn't merely interested in Gosling as it is utterly enamoured by him as he delivers another fine performance, a turn that isn't offset by his director's knowing iconography. There is a forced feeling at times, though it's never less than joyous, that Cianfrance is looking for classic status in the imagery of his leading actor; like Brando in The Wild One or Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish. But in reassessing the film's relationship with myth-making and its hankering for the past, this approach is certainly fitting or forgivable at least.
The seams may show in The Place Beyond The Pines, a film that's fit to burst with a rich array of existential concerns. But I can't see how a film with such an appetite deserves an ounce of condemnation. It's rare to see a film take risks that others would deem narrative suicide, to be completely entrusted with itself from beginning to end without losing sight while it morphs and adjusts to encompass what it desires to accomplish.