Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Mashahala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Greenwood, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta, Emery Cohen and Dane DeHaan
The Place Beyond the Pines is the ultra-ambitious second feature film from Derek Cianfrance, following up on his critically acclaimed indie anti-romance Blue Valentine (2010). Pines’ captures the melancholy of Cianfrance’s first film but this time he has put things on a much grander scale. Here Cianfrance attempts to handle up to ten different meaty themes, equally spread across a 140-minute narrative, and impressively almost achieves this impossible feat. Pines’ is a triptych and one of the most ambitious, genre-crossing American films in years.
The film begins with a magnificent tracking shot as we follow motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling) from his trailer, through a carnival, and into a tent where he is to perform one of his dangerous stunts. It is a fantastic start to the film from the young visionary director, made all the cooler by Ryan Gosling’s minimalist yet forceful acting style. The leather jacket and the cigarette may remind some viewers of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and more recently The Driver in Drive (2011) not least because this character was also played by Gosling.
As the narrative progresses more correlations between Luke and The Driver can be made, with slight but significant variances. Gosling puts on a machismo strut but his eyes convey an inner conflict and a hopeless emptiness unable to be filled by his local celebrity status or his one night stands. There is a shocking violence behind his thin veil of calm. This is Gosling's strength as an actor, he can put forward one view of the character he is portraying while simultaneously evoking another. He can add pathos to a character through a distinctly original minimalist acting style.
Luke inadvertently learns that he has fathered a baby with former fling Romina (Eva Mendes). With this, Luke finds purpose and direction, something that he could never find on the road, moving from town to town with his carnival. He vows to support and care for the child by whatever means necessary. Luke, with the help of his friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), begins to rob local banks in order to provide money for his son’s upbringing. Pine’s first act positively enforces fatherhood and responsibility while remaining morally ambiguous about the limits a man must go to in order to fulfill his social role.
Billed, and sold to audiences as a crime-thriller, Pines is much more than that. To pigeon-hole, a film like this into a specific genre would be unfair. Just as Pines seemed to be turning to a heist movie/morality play an encounter between Luke and young police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) switches the film tonally and generically as the focus becomes Cooper’s character. Cianfrance claims that the character of Avery Cross was written specifically for Cooper, and had he not taken the role, the film may not have been made.
After allowing us to emotionally invest in Gosling’s character, Cianfrance daringly takes him away from us and instead presents Avery Cross, a squeaky-clean rookie cop with a Law degree. Many film critics have likened this film to a Greek Tragedy, such is the epic scale of its narrative, and if this is the case then the idea of the doppelganger is highly prevalent. The doppelganger also originated in Greek literature and poetry, used as a device to represent the conflict of the soul and the inner conflict of vice and virtue. Cianfrance, along with his writing partners Ben Coccio and Darius Marder adapt this idea for Pines as they spilt the inner conflict into two characters, namely Luke and Avery. Luke as the vice and Avery, the virtue, their similarities are overt. Both struggle with the responsibility of fatherhood, Avery on a much more psychological level. Both struggle within the confines of their social class. Luke must steal to provide for his family, Avery battles with his passive-aggressive relationship with his own father, his emotionally distant wife, and his corrupt colleagues. They are the same but different.
Cinematically this theme has often been explored in psychoanalytical terms. Starting off in German expressionistic films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and pioneered in American cinema by noir films of the 1940s like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Third Man (1949). Alfred Hitchcock carried on its conventional use in Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958), whereby two characters are in conflict with one another and ultimately end up battling it out in the film’s final scenes. More recently this theme has been explored by Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, in their own unique way in The Prestige (2006) and Black Swan (2010) respectively. However Pines’ is different in the way the doppelganger theme does not have roots in the Freudian use of the term but rather its original Greek literary meaning. Luke and Avery are the two elements of the Psychomachia, even though they barely have screen time together.
As the film enters its third act, the influences of Greek tragedies are confirmed through the narrative's reliance on coincidence or fate, whatever way you want to look at it. The plot skips 15 years ahead. Avery has transformed from virtue to vice. Perhaps a message that life eventually corrupts the soul. Avery’s vice being his career ambition, and in the process neglecting his family, a big no-no in terms of the film’s overall message. As a result of this, he is divorced and his son AJ (Emery Cohen) is off-the-rails. AJ comes to live with his father, however, it seems Avery has inherited his own father’s passivity and puts career progression over his delinquent teenager's needs. This is where the film becomes trans-generational and the plot hinges on a coincidence of oedipal proportions. At his new high-school AJ becomes involved with outsider Jason (Dane DeHaan), he uses him to fuel his drug abuse and to satisfy his violent tendencies. Jason seeks redemption for the way AJ has treated him. The film’s third act is carried by the young talents of Dane DeHaan, star of Chronicle (2012) and Lawless (2012) the actor has a bright future ahead of him, he looks like a young Leo Di Caprio.
As the third act draws to a close, it’s like one is watching a completely different film to the one that started off with the cool tracking shot of Ryan Gosling. With Pines, Cianfrance has created a truly unique cinematic experience. His clever use of narrative is comparable to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) or William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), however, Cianfrance’s narrative to purely linear.
Pines, however, is not without its faults. Many will argue that the second two acts do not reach the heights first act. The high-octane thrills led by Gosling in the first part of the film give way to the brooding, procedural performance from Bradley Cooper. However, no one performance is necessarily better than the other. Gosling is just more visceral and in your face. Audiences will also be divided by the plots general reliance on coincidence. Fans of classical cinema will prove more accepting.
A fantastically ambitious film The Place Beyond the Pines advocates the importance of fatherhood and responsibility and implies that what we do in life will have consequences for many generations to come. It is one of the more interesting films about masculinity and morality in recent years.