Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

2011's "Drive" remains triumphant as one of the most vibrant and shockingly vigorous creations of 21st century filmmaking.  That movie was as fashionable and cool as the blood-splattered scorpion jacket and blue jeans that Ryan Gosling was wearing throughout it.  Watching that movie was like drinking bottled electricity.  Now in 2013, inevitably, "Drive" was going to end up inspiring a few imitators.  "Rip-off" is a rough term, its a little crude and a little accusatory for what "The Place Beyond the Pines" is, I'd say its more of an "artistic descendant".  Clearly no movie would exist called "The Place Beyond the Pines" if there had never been a movie called "Drive", but "The Place Beyond the Pines" is unique enough on its own merits that it should judged that way.  And unfortunately, it doesn't come up very well.

Only about a third of "The Place Beyond the Pines"'s three-acts actually stars Ryan Gosling and seems to be, on if only a marketing level, an homage to "Drive".  Maybe the filmmakers never intended their movie to have any connection to "Drive" at all, but I'm sorry, if you cast Ryan Gosling as a quiet, troubled outlaw robbing banks with motorsports superpowers, inevitably I, and quite other people, are going have the word "Drive" lit up inside our brains like Vegas neon lights.  Beyond that, however, there is still a remaining two acts starring different people in very different but related stories.  I was not expecting this, and was left completely confused during the movie when all of a sudden it seemed like story I was experiencing had ended, and now I was watching a very extended coda.  And then that story ended and a whole new postscript came along, this one with even less clarity of structure.  It was exhausting, it was confusing.  I thought Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling were sharing a story together, instead they each have their own, and then Dane DeHaan (the lead from last year's psychic tragedy, "Chronicle", this time without "Akira"-esque powers) gets what's basically his own movie too.

Its quite a thing to be in a theater over an hour after the story you paid money to see has concluded.  Most critics seem to have deeply enjoyed "The Place Beyond the Pines", for being an introspective deeply morose film featuring an epic family saga that would not have been out of place in the Seventies era of New Hollywood films like "The Godfather" and "The Deer Hunter"*.  I did not.  This felt to me like something that would fit better in a book, where you can write three interconnected stories for hundreds of pages, while your readers have weeks to experience, but not something that works in a two-hour film.  When I'm in a movie repeating to myself "Isn't this over?  What is going on?" that's not a good sign.  Which is a shame since "The Place Beyond the Pines" even getting over my confusion, seems like it was something very serious and very dramatic, though sadly often melodramatic and humorless.  Call me a sell-out, call me a fanboy, call me a moron, but I missed Ryan Gosling for two hours of that film.  Sue me.

One note about the title:  "The Place Beyond the Pines" is not location in the film that the characters visit, its actually the English translation of "Schenectady", the hardest town in New York state to pronounce, which is where this entire film takes place.  There are some woods that characters visit every so often, but there doesn't seem to be very thematic significance behind them.  The other thing you should know is that most of the film is happening in the 90s, because fifteen pass to take us to the present day.  The only way you could ever know it was the 90s is by looking at Bradley Cooper's terrible taste in windbreakers.

Ultimately "The Place Beyond the Pines" wants to be a story about heavy issues:  crime, the disconnect between fathers and sons, the passage of generations, etc.  But I get the sense it was trying to do too many things at once.  There are some great performances here, with Ryan Gosling going back to his Driver With No Name role from "Drive", but nothing that left me earth-shattered.  The cinematography is decent and at times even inspired, especially when shots from earlier in the film are repeated in a new generation.  But the movie simply never really came together for me.  There are a lot of great ideas, but the movie is simply over-stuffed and its hard to understand what is really the point.  We go from a Ryan Gosling plotline where he's robbing banks to provide for his son who is being raised by an under-used Eva Mendes and a another man, to suddenly watching a different movie where Bradley Cooper is surviving the aftermath of Ryan's Gosling's actions while dealing with a huge police corruption scandal masterminded by Ray Liotta, to a final third plotline dealing with their sons.  I'll avoid spoilers, but having seen the entire movie, I really don't see what Ray Liotta's events really had to do with anything, other than to pad the movie out by throwing in a large B-plot entirely unrelated to the familial conflicts.  And even before the movie changed plots on me, for the entire first third of the movie I was wondering where Bradley Cooper was and if I had remembered the trailers wrong.

The problem, for me, was energy.  "The Place Beyond the Pines" builds up two whole movies with their own energy and own own conflicts, then resolves these, leading us to see yet another third.  And by that point I had already had enough movie, I was ready to go home, but yet it continued.  There's simply too much going on all too deeply divided from each other.  I almost wish there had been more mixing between these stories, like how "Pulp Fiction" had managed to have so many separate events take place thanks to a unique chronology.  Also, "Pulp Fiction" was an endlessly entertaining crime adventure, not a rather morose introspective movie that's a half hour too long.  Or "Cloud Atlas" which mixed all of its events together in a blender creating a unique energy that drove you along.  "The Place Beyond the Pines" doesn't have energy.  It has stops and starts.  Which is something that can work in a book, but not a movie.

So to say I was disappointed in "The Place Beyond the Pines" would be an accurate statement.  It wasn't what I was expecting, I was looking for something where Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling's characters would intersect and share the same story, not steal the spotlight from each other.  And really, it wasn't much fun.  I was willing to sit down and let something serious and dramatic happen for awhile, but by the third act change, I just wanted to run away and watch something stupid and simply entertaining.  Something like "Oblivion".  But that's a later review.  For now, I can't recommend "The Place Beyond the Pines", sorry.

* "The Godfather" is an enduring classic of filmmaking, great movie.  "The Deer Hunter" is almost an hour of a wedding featuring characters who never really connect with the audience, it feels like watching somebody else's home movies without knowing who any of these people are.  I gave up thirty minutes in, and still have never seen the rest of it.  Director Michael Camino would later beat this performance by creating "Heaven's Gate", a long boring flop of self-indulgence that killed the Old Hollywood era.  I like to see all the legendary bad movies, but "Heaven's Gate" sounds like too much for even me.


  1. I think a Final Fantasy series retrospective is a daunting task, yet it can be a fun read. I recommend reading this:

    1. I've read that countdown before and it was some very extensive work. But why should he have all the fun?

    2. You're right, he shouldn't. So if (and when) you want to do it, then I give you my full support.

  2. Well that's just sad. I was really hoping that this would be a good movie.
    Oh Well! Hopefully "From Up On Poppy Hill" will be a different story.