Monday, April 15, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

By Derek Cianfrance


            In moving away from the stark realism of his 2010 marital drama Blue Valentine and painting with much broader thematic and stylistic strokes, director Derek Cianfrance both succeeds greatly and overreaches wildly over the course of this film’s many times enthralling, but ultimately bloated 140-minute run-time.  While the film’s brooding style and dreamy pacing is hypnotic, it ultimately runs out of steam and loses its way.  The film is told in three acts, and it is unfortunate that the film’s weakest act (by far) is its finale, for finales many times leave the strongest impression.  While the film’s initial acts tie themes of paternal instinct, moral compromise, and a fear of losing control impressively between stories of two young fathers on very different paths, the film’s third act is a reach, and rather than flowing from the natural progression of the story, feels forced and superfluous.
            Something, however, must be said for the strengths of this film’s first two acts, for they are both cinematically and thematically captivating.  The film first tells, in its entirety, the story of a down-on-his-luck daredevil who resorts to bank robberies to contribute to his newly discovered son’s well-being, then moves to a story of a hard-working, but morally conflicted cop who crashes into this dare-devil’s life in the most tragic of circumstances.  At this pivotal point, the film leaves our initial protagonist behind and introduces a new center, while keeping its initial story in the periphery.  Rather than cross-cutting the stories, splitting the viewer’s attention and relying on the familiarity of crime-genre tropes, the film adds depth and meaning to these tropes by allotting devoted time to each character, allowing for a deeper recognition to the characters' personalities and flaws.  Much of the film’s contrivances are helped by this extra attention given to their internal struggles (as well as solid performances from the film’s leads).
            But then there is that third act.  Oh boy, the third act.  Jumping forward 15 years, the film tells the stories of these characters’ sons, trying desperately to make a statement about the far-reaching effects of decisions made in the heat of passion.  Yet, none of it works too well because the depth of character development that drives the first two acts is vacant here.  The sons are simply too broadly drawn to be interesting, and the film plods to a finish rather than with a crescendo.
            In the end, however, it is a worthwhile viewing due to its superb and tautly executed first acts, which are something to behold.  These successes, which could stand alone as a much better film, more than make up for its ambitions getting the best of it in its meandering third act.

A weak *** out of ****

                (Not-too) shockingly, I agree with almost everything you say, especially with regard to the brooding style and dreamy pace.  Additionally, like in his debut feature, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance gets two more excellent performances out of his lead actors: Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.  Gosling is always excellent, and it’s no different here.  Cooper continues to amaze me following his incredible performance in Silver Linings Playbook.  (Seriously, how good were the lead actors in last year’s prestige pictures?!)  Also, I loved Cianfrance’s visual choices, utilizing striking angles and wonderful tracking shots throughout.  I also thought the score was fantastic and accentuated to the moody atmosphere.
                Like you, I also felt as though the third act was the least successful, although certainly not a full-on disaster.  The issue was that Cianfrance clearly communicated in the tone and mood of the film that all the story and character work was leading to something huge (this crescendo, as you call it), so the third act needed to have some sort of payoff.  However, I felt as though the AJ character was almost entirely superfluous, and the Jason character needed expansion in order for the conclusions and final scenes to be wholly satisfying.  His home life seemed mostly loving, and I didn’t understand where his depression was rooted.  Also, there were some interesting themes in the first two acts, specifically how money and power changes people, that were just kind of dropped.  I would have liked to see how that played out a little more.
                I also want to point out a few problems I noticed in the first two acts, and see what you thought of them.  The character transformations for both Gosling and Cooper are believable, but more breathing room to show those transformations probably would have been helpful; it sometimes felt like scenes were left in the cutting room that would have allowed the changes to seem more natural.  Additionally, while I thought both Rose Byrne and Eva Mendes did fine work, there were a few awkward scenes – like the pillowtalk between Byrne and Cooper.  Knowing more about their marriage would have been helpful.  
                The chapter-based storytelling was a daring move, and Cianfrance is clearly a very talented young director - it just didn’t all add up to a satisfying whole.  

(A tepid) *** out of ****

                You are absolutely correct about Gosling and Cooper, who both put in great performances, finding subtly in the midst of machismo.  I also couldn’t agree more about the character development of the third act – the film seems to expect viewers to accept the youthful dysfunctions of its characters with little effort to explain them.  This is a major issue because the dysfunction raises big questions in a viewer’s mind – how the heck did these kids end up this way?  This is distracting, even more so when compared to the careful character development in the first two acts of the film.  I spent far too much time wondering about what happened in the fifteen years between acts two and three than actually interacting with the conflict of the third act.
                I also appreciate you pointing out also how many of the (more interesting) themes were abandoned in this last act as well.  The film simply overreaches and addresses too many themes for its own good, eventually abandoning some of its most interesting themes in favor of its most melodramatic.  It is too bad the film didn’t simply roll credits at the end of the second act (and it could have without seeming off), for then it would have been far more impactful – both thematically and emotionally.

                I mostly agree with you about the need for more breathing room for the film’s leads, though I did see some merit to keeping viewers at a distance.  It seemed to me that, while this film was far from a full-on character study, it let us dwell with the personalities long enough for shifts to be both believable and surprising.  There is a moment when the dare-devil figure is far more violent than we first imagined he could be, and this is indeed an effective shock – mainly because we only knew him by way of his external temperament.  This worked for me, as the distance put between the viewer and protagonist was enough to make a statement about narrative cinema in general – the reality is that we can only know so much about people we have spent less than two hours with.  We operate on assumptions far too often, especially when informed by film tropes.
                The difference, to me, between the film’s first two acts and its third in terms of character development is that we come to be familiar with the mannerisms and personalities of the leads in the first two acts simply by spending uninterrupted time with them, but are never given the opportunity to know the young men in the third act, as they are presented as broadly drawn character types and are never given the opportunity to change or grow.  They are simply stuck being cogs in the film’s (over)plotting.


                I think you’re mostly right that there was enough development for the transformations, but it is still a little hard to wrap my mind around such a shift for both characters.  Both Cooper and Gosling have (very large) character shifts in the course of 40 minutes, and while I found the shifts believable, I couldn’t understand why they occurred.
                I don’t know if ending it after Act II would have worked either, mainly because the film builds during the first two acts and there is not a satisfying end point thematically.  I don’t know what would have worked.  Perhaps Cianfrance wrote himself into a corner in that way.  It was just, clearly, overly-ambitious.


                Two things.  One, I thought the reveal of moral compromise and career ambition before the jump 15 years forward would have been an effective point to end the film, as it nicely tied how one moral compromise can lead to another, and how one’s position can feed on the misfortunes of others.  I do admit that this would have left the theme of fathers and sons without a meaningful conclusion, but I would prefer that open-endedness to the contrived conclusion the film provided.  Two, I love you.


                Perhaps you have a point had the focus of the movie been mainly on ambition and power, but it seemed to be more about fathers and sons.  I don’t know where I would have ended it.  I did find the climactic scene in the third act pretty well done, relative to the rest of the third act.  It brought all the film’s main themes back to center stage, even if it did this through extreme circumstances.  In general, I think we can agree that the film is over-ambitious, but stunning in moments, all the same.

I love you, too.

Two-as-One Rating: *** out of ****

P.S. This was a very difficult film to do as our very first review conversation, as it is an easily spoiled film.  We both do think it's worth seeing.

No comments:

Post a Comment