A Droid Premiere – The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)
It’s the event film season. In this time of CGI effects, slow motion hero shots, basic storytelling and stuff blowing up real good, it’s often difficult to find a film at your local Hollywoodplex that tries for something more. A film about actual characters, who are involved in meaningful stories with insight and compelling themes. So when The Place Beyond The Pines was released last week, accompanied by favourable (often slobbering) reviews, I went out of my way to see it. I’m afraid I will be discussing the plot in some detail, so developments will be revealed. While these developments aren’t integral to the effectiveness of the film (ie. knowing them won’t ruin the film for you), I didn’t know the important one, and it wasn’t revealed in the trailer. If you read further, you’ll know. There, I’ve sufficiently covered my ass.
Luke (a bleach blonde Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman at a travelling fair. His gig is to get inside a giant metal ball with two other stuntmen and all three ride at crazy speed. Unfortunately this is only glimpsed at the end of the opening tracking shot (involving a clever hidden cut). For curiosity sake I would have liked a better look. After the show, Luke is approached by an ex, Romina (Eva Mendes) and he discovers he has a one year old son named Jason. Wanting to be a father to the boy, he quits and takes up a job as a mechanic, working for Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). But times are tough, and you can’t support a family on minimum wage. Romina has settled with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), and Luke will have to show his worth to win her back and be involved in his sons life. Naturally, he turns to crime. With Robin as his accomplice, he begins to rob banks. But when he lashes out at Kofi and is arrested for assault, he is cut off by Romina. Luke becomes desperate. He decides to hit two banks in one day, and when Robin refuses to help, he goes it alone. Bungling the getaway, he is pursued by the rookie police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper). When Luke holds up in a house, Avery charges in and shoots him dead.
That’s the big plot development, and one that I didn’t expect. Ryan Gosling, name above the title and all that. But this is just a third of the way into the film. The perspective of the film then shifts on to Avery, as he recovers from a bullet wound in his leg (Luke shot back before he died), and deals with being in the spotlight as a local hero. Knowing that Luke had a son the same age as his own, he feels substantial guilt for the shooting. His marriage to Jennifer (Rose Byrne) suffers. He also becomes reluctantly involved in police corruption, when fellow officers in his department (led by Ray Liotta) shake down Romina for the stolen cash. Looking for a way out, he goes to the DA (Bruce Greenwood) and makes a deal. The son of a senator, Avery was set to become a lawyer and had passed the bar before he quit to become a police officer. In return for informing on his fellow cops, he receives a job as an Assistant DA.
15 years later and Avery is running for office. Divorced from Jennifer, his son AJ (Emory Cohen) moves in with him. AJ is a ginormous douchebag in need of a good kicking. Going to the local high school, AJ’s first friend is… you guessed it, Jason (Dane DeHaan). Things happen, past events resurface, and old wounds are re-opened. Blah blah blah.
This film didn’t work for me. Not after Luke is killed anyway. The first section of the film is compelling, well acted and really seems like it could go somewhere interesting. The desperate actions of a man who only wants to do good by his son, so that he can become a better man than he is, who is backed into a corner and is given a way out through crime. The repercussions of his acts could have been a thought provoking, involving and emotionally satisfying story. And this is where I thought it was going. By killing off your main character and shifting focus to a new one that was only just introduced (we first see Avery when he’s in pursuit), the screenplay by Darius Marder, Ben Coccio and the director Derek Cianfrance well and truly over-eggs the pudding.
If they had created characters as interesting as Luke and Robin, then the film would have rode the bump of this shift and continued on its not so merry way. Sure the theme of the film is the sins of the father blah blah, but each section of the film is less interesting than the last. So much so that I had almost no interest in the outcome of the film (apart from the hope that they would show AJ getting his head kicked in). I didn’t believe certain actions taken by Jason towards the end of the film, and found the whole situation contrived. At 140 minutes, the film is also overlong by at least 20 minutes. I’ve not seen Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine, but he’s an effective director and the robbery sequences in particular have a visceral, raw quality that seems to come naturally.
Despite screeching like a woman during the bank robbery scenes, Ryan Gosling puts in a very good performance. The character is interesting, and I was invested in his story. Ben Mendelsohn is also good as Robin, who is essentially a nice guy who likes Luke and doesn’t want to see him in trouble. Eva Mendes is okay, but she’s too old for the character and probably needed someone in her mid-twenties. There’s some solid work by Ray Liotta, the always dependable Bruce Greenwood and Dane DeHaan (although he could use a role where he’s not an awkward teenager). Rose Byrne is largely ineffectual, although she doesn’t have much to work with. And my feelings towards Bradley Cooper are well documented. My jets have cooled over the last few years, and he doesn’t incite instant dislike as he used to, but I’m never going to be a fan. His performance is fine, but I didn’t like the character and wasn’t very interested in his story.
The biggest problem I had with the film is Emory Cohen as AJ. Firstly, he looks nothing like his onscreen parents. Neither does DeHaan for that matter, but I didn’t have as much of a problem with him. The real problem with Cohen is his performance. I assume it was a directive from Cianfrance, but as played it’s like the goombah bastard child of Marlon Brando and Paul Sorvino. Never for one second did I believe that this kid was raised by Avery and Jennifer. He doesn’t even seem to have been raised in the same town. He’s a douchebag rich kid and he tawks loik he’s from the streets of Brooklyn (or some shit like that). It’s just so out of place, it only resulted in taking me entirely out of the film. What little interest I had in the film ended when the focus of the story shifted to him.
The other issue I had with the film, and this is a very common problem with films set over a number of years, is that 15 years later none of the characters looked much different. I watched Broken City the other day and that suffers from the same problem. Sure the women were given a makeup job so that they were a bit darker under the eyes, and maybe some salt and pepper in the hair. But in close up, Rose Byrne hadn’t aged a day. Her skin showed no sign of the passage of time. Time marches on for all of us, and there is no secret for everlasting youth. Bradley Cooper was merely given a slick politico’s haircut and an expensive suit, and we’re expected to buy it.
Overall, this was a disappointment because the first section is actually very good. It’s possible that ambition got the best of the writing team, but whatever the reason, The Place Beyond The Pines fell apart. It’s a shame because these films are few and far between at this time of year. It’s back to ‘splosions and superheroes I guess.
I bestow two bottles of peroxide out of a possible four on The Place Beyond The Pines.