Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES       B                
USA  (140 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Derek Cianfrance

This is a major improvement over his initial film, BLUE VALENTINE (2010), which despite major stars and critical accolades, and the potential to be so much more, felt overwritten, poorly directed, and badly edited, feeling more like a sketch of what it wanted to be, loosely improvised, never developing any real dramatic impact and ultimately failing to connect with the audience.  This is a peculiar follow-up piece, which at times resembles an overwrought literary melodrama, but continues to surprise by elongating the story, by going places few films ever dare to venture.  The epic nature and novelesque reach of the film is impressive, even when it often appears to be a trainwreck about to happen.  Like Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), it’s a shock to see such a prominent character killed off so quickly, where initially the viewer tends to wrap things up in their heads, preparing for the inevitable finale, but it simply moves ahead in a completely different direction.  It plays out as if there were chapter headings, where the film is divided into separate biographical segments, but none match the intensity of the opening, featuring Ryan Gosling as daredevil motorcycle rider Luke Glanton, an over-the-edge carnival rider who continually has to get amped up before his daring performances before the public, entering a steel circular cage where three riders zig zag around a globe at full tilt, often defying gravity, as they circumnavigate their way through a blur of nonstop motion.  As he travels the circuit, he moves from town to town, never taking root, drifting aimlessly for years, where he runs into an old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes), but despite a few sparks, nothing materializes, as he’s leaving town the next day.  Through a few plot contrivances, he discovers she’s kept a secret, a young two-year old boy, claiming he was gone before she could ever tell him.  For some inexplicable reason, Luke’s life, which has no boundaries or even definition, suddenly develops a focus around this little boy, as he wants to be a part of his life even though Romina already lives with a boyfriend.           

While there’s a whirlwind of activity as Luke has to decide how to connect with a kid he doesn’t even know, his first step is to decide to stay in the Schenectady, New York region, where the Mohawk derivation of the city name explains the title and the region itself becomes a mysterious connecting link to the story.  Luke meets a fellow biker, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who runs a dilapidated garage outside of town, offering him a near uninhabitable trailer as a place to stay, where a couple of grease monkeys can tinker with their bikes.  Robin, however, concocts an ingenious idea for how Luke can apply his skill set in supporting his son, by robbing banks.  While these heist sequences are among the weakest in the entire movie, with Luke growing more reckless over time, the chase sequences afterwards are simply enthralling, where he diverts the police by pulling into the back of an awaiting truck. For a brief moment, in what amounts to an instant, Romina allows Luke the chance to be a father, but he quickly oversteps the boundaries, arriving whenever he feels like it and colliding into the lives of others, like a demolition derby driver, destroying anything that he can’t control.  So much for subtlety, but it does speak to his unorthodox character, where he routinely crosses the line of criminal and morally unethical behavior, not exactly the right formula to express paternal interests.  All his plans to be a provider backfire when his ambitious appetite for quick fix robberies suddenly catches up to him and the police have him cornered.  In a strange and mysterious turn of events, the narrative attaches itself to a young police officer, Bradley Cooper as Avery Cross, the man who miraculously survives the violent shootout.  While the intricate detail of the shifting storyline is interesting, and a daring narrative tactic, it lacks the immediacy and sense of urgency of the Gosling segment.  But out of nowhere, it introduces us to Ray Liotta as a fellow police officer, immediately submerging the viewer into the moral ethics of Goodfellas (1990), where the Schenectady police force is a sewer of corruption.  Like something out of a Bobcat Goldthwait depiction, the exaggerated satire of a guy lauded and uncomfortably paraded around town as a police hero is actually tarnished with his own stain of corruption, as among other things, he feels guilty for having killed the father of another young kid just about the same age as his own son. 

Much like Luke, though from a completely different socio economic background, Avery chooses the fast track of career advancement, joining the district attorney’s office, where his personal ambition takes a toll on his marriage, jumping ahead fifteen years later where we see the changing focus on his over privileged and smugly arrogant son, Emory Cohen as AJ, who by accident or design seeks out Dane DeHaan as Jason, the surviving son of Luke Glanton, whose mother has told him nothing about his father, which only makes him more curious as he gets older.  But the budding friendship of these two, uncomfortable to say the least, is a completely manipulative relationship where AJ places pressure on Jason to provide ecstasy pills and other illicit drugs.  Why he succumbs, no one knows, as he appears to have little or nothing to gain, as AJ is little more than a spoiled, pampered and overly obnoxious bully pretending to be some kind of cool hip cat, but he’s just another bratty rich kid who gets away with murder by having well influenced parents.  As his behavior veers more out of control, he continues to suck the life out of Jason, who doesn’t realize the connection between the two fathers until it’s too late, finally realizing he’s been duped all along.  While the film attempts to suggest the sins of the fathers weigh upon the damaged and broken lives of the teenage boys, reconnecting back to the original story by means of exploring various other subplots, this is reminiscent of a long line of interconnected movies, the most infamous being the phony and completely  pretentious Paul Haggis, karma oriented CRASH (2004), or Guillermo Arriaga’s interweaving sagas for Alejando González Iñárritu.  Yet this somehow feels different, emptier, more spacious, less defined, where the memory of the past has a haunting power over the present, where characters are actually connected in ways they barely understand themselves, and however improbable, becomes highly impactful by the end with a terrific blend of poetic interior moods, beautifully established by the music of Arvo Pärt, and the gorgeous upstate New York visualizations by Sean Bobbitt.  The heavily impressionistic mosaic actually works as an extended atmospheric piece, held together by the power of the performances and deft direction that allows a richly textured mood to prevail over all the slowly developing narrative landscapes.      

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