Movie Review: The Place Beyond the Pines- A Triptych Reflecting on Guilt, Redemption, and Forgiveness that is Ambitious to a Fault

place-beyond-the-pines-ryan-gosling-eva-mendes1Ambition should never be ignored, especially in the realm of cinema where choreographed visuals, intense dramatization, and thematic contemplations can all play a part in transforming entertainment into genuine art. One of these aspiring cinematic poets is the late bloomer Derek Cianfrance who astonished audiences with his grittily authentic relationship drama Blue Valentine, an endeavor that took 12 years to write and create. His latest drama The Place Beyond the Pines is as aspiring as his last and though it is unarguably longwinded and falters on occasion there is much to be admired in its thematic ideas, its technical mastery, and its dramatic ambition. Structured as a triptych, a story split into three distinct but interlinking parts, The Place Beyond the Pines casts a large net of deep seated contemplations on guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. This incredibly Catholic inspired philosophical drama has its own trinity of disconnected fathers, isolated sons, and broken spirits as it showcases the negative consequences of personal aspiration, criminal enterprise, and negating responsibility. All of these heavy themes combined with Cianfrance’s cinematic ability to capture unsettling and realistic interactions will definitely exhaust most viewers, but there is no doubting that The Place Beyond the Pines elucidates the consequences of family and heritage as much as Blue Valentine reflected on romantic disconnection. As each chapter of this dramatic trinity unfolds to be less interesting than the last there is much to be admired in Cianfrance’s dramatic realism, subtle technical achievements, and his fine direction of accomplished actors. Ambition should always be recognized even when the execution isn’t up to par with the depth of intentions and The Place Beyond the Pines shows an auteur who is finding unique ways to express his own philosophical contemplations through the medium of film.

There is undeniable density in the screenplays of Derek Cianfrance that allows his epic dramas to become like visual novels where an emphasis on plot impetus and character depth take center stage over visual appeasement. Tackling an overarching drama that has three distinct chapters is rarely attempted and it’s difficult to summarize the film as a whole without giving away essential spoiler details. However, the general description for The Place Beyond the Pines is a well-constructed reflection on family and the difficulties of responsibility, the ripple effect of crime, and the inevitable pathways of fate. Cianfrance is an intimate and humanist storyteller who understands the tenuous relationship between fathers and sons, which is shown in great authenticity in each chapter of his epic triptych. Chapter one is in essence a crime drama while chapter two is the embodiment of the police genre, and both are captured with incredible sensitivity and creative momentum. The culmination of the first two chapters unfortunately hinges on chapter three, the weakest of the three chapters, and leaves us with a weakened impression. However, the intended themes of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness can be strongly felt throughout the entire picture and although the film as a whole doesn’t live up to its thematic ambitions there is a haunting impact left upon the viewer. Cianfrance’s ideas could fill two mini-series worth of drama, plot deviations, and thoughtful reflection giving us insight into a mind that might need a finer creative filter so that every single intended consideration is explored in its entirety. Though The Place Beyond the Pines is dramatically exhausting and intense in contemplation it’s difficult to not acknowledge that these types of melancholic humanist stories are hardly ever made anymore. Despite the film being a tad long and slightly languid in its final chapter there is still plenty to admire in this ambitiously sensitive script that is fully realized through Cianfrance’s equally sensitive visual eye.

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At two different moments in The Place Beyond the Pines there is a similar tracking shot used to follow each protagonist in their separate environments, one a carnival and the other a police station. These mirrored images break down the separation of class between the two men and equalizes them in their mutual struggle with family, responsibility, and personal achievement, which transcends class affiliation. Cianfrance understands the depth and scope of his source material to the point where complimentary visuals come naturally to his cinematic storytelling sensibilities. Whether it’s the intimate realism of a family argument or the gritty intensity of a bank robbery there is a consistent technical brilliance to Cianfrance’s choices that enhance the impact of his film. It’s no surprise that Cianfrance chose to work with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt since Bobbitt’s previous work has been with director Steve McQueen, an equally poetic filmmaker who specializes in capturing unsettling authenticity with films such as Shame and Hunger. Together Cianfrance and Bobbitt create a gritty visual tapestry that is as grainy as the lives of the characters in this mournful drama. Because there is a split in focus with three separate chapters the only connection they have besides some interweaving characters is the consistency of the visual palate, which keeps all the overarching themes reliable throughout the film. Though there is a shaky, guerilla quality to the filmmaking there is a purposeful grace to its delivery and a relevance to its chosen sets to accentuate its themes that is rarely found within most films these days. The Place Beyond the Pines might not have a seamless execution but there is enough visual mastery complimenting the intended novelist themes of the film that makes it a worthwhile experience, especially when considering the fine acting of its cast.

Cianfrance has a collaborative eloquence with his actors due to his personal connection with his source material and his created characters, which was already evident in his sophomore feature film Blue Valentine. He continues his fine direction of performance in The Place Beyond the Pines with one of his chosen muses Ryan Gosling who has screen presence that is rooted in transformation rather than charm because everything from his dialect, his posture, his annunciation, and his facial cues are all dependent on the role he’s playing. His intensity, unpredictability, and surprising sympathetic allure in the role as Luke Glanton are delivered with believable strides and it seems impossible that anyone else could have played the role with such assurance. Hearing his shrieks during the bank robbery scenes just shows his full transformation into this brutal and erratic role. While Bradley Cooper certainly showed his genuine acting abilities with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook there is a sensitive subtlety to his role as police officer Avery Cross that he hasn’t explored before. His inner troubled nature is revealed through a tiny exasperated breath as much as it is shown through his explosive temperament. Both of these two leads control their two chapters with grace giving us the emotional connection needed to understand Cianfrance’s reflections on the inheritance of disconnected fathers. Some notable supporting performances come from Ray Liotta as a corrupt, racist police officer and Ben Mendelsohn as Luke’s sensible employer and organized partner in crime. All of the performances are credible even in the languid third chapter that weighs down the experience in its length and faltering focus. It’s clear that Cianfrance understands storytelling in all its facets, especially in the essential capturing of performances that make your intended thematic drama palpable.

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Auteurs are extremely rare especially in a creative system that demands conformity to formula and dependence on high budgets. Derek Cianfrance has a powerful outlook on life and definitely has the poetic storytelling capabilities combined with flattering imagery to highlight that philosophy. As a whole The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t as focused or as poignant as Cianfrance’s previous film Blue Valentine, but there is an undeniable ambition and contemplation to its delivery that makes it worthwhile to experience. Choosing the triptych structure might have been appropriate for its trinity reflection on fathers, sons, and broken spirits but by the time the third chapter begins it’s already been an exhaustingly realistic journey. The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerful accomplishment in realizing that authentic dramas can be engaging, thoughtful, and most of all ambitious. Cianfrance shows a great deal of promise to become a filmmaker who has a distinct voice in character and visual grace if he is able to find a finer filter to his large and all-encompassing ideas. Ambition should always be recognized and though The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t fully live up to its intentions there is much to be admired from its authentic drama, its contemplative themes, and especially in its fine performances.

Grade: B-

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