The Place Beyond the Pines

There is no doubt, films are becoming more obtuse. Yet again I had to resort to research to enlighten my poor brain. This time over the title of the movie itself: I came out asking why on earth it was called The Place Beyond the Pines? Thank you, Philip French, whom I normally find rather pretentious because he does like to show off his in-depth knowledge of the background to every film he reviews, in an erudite fashion. In this case Schenectady, the town where the film is set (bringing back memories of the terrible Synecdoche), is the Mohawk name for the place beyond the pines. Well, who would have guessed?

I chose to see this film on the basis of its strong billing – Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes – but a good 40 minutes into it and Bradley Cooper was yet to appear. And when he did, finally, his face had been digitally enhanced to make him look younger, so I didn’t recognise him! Ye Gods.

So what is going on here? On the face of it, a simple story about Luke (Gosling), a motorcycle stunt rider, famous for the Globe of Death ride – which, for the record, British cinematographer Sean Bobbit nearly died filming. Good-looking, a drifter with a devil-may-care attitude, he quits the circus when he bumps into old flame Romina (Mendes) and discovers he has a 6 month-old son. 

Others have applauded Luke’s desire to be a responsible father, but I was outraged by his stalking of Romina and his attempts to insinuate himself and bust up her stable and happy family life. It glorifies the image of a father having rights, regardless of his character and amoral behaviour. Such machismo is deeply offensive to women, I suggest. He teams up with a low-life Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to support his family by robbing banks, putting his love of speed and expertise on the bike to optimum use.

Enter Avery Cross (Cooper) – at last – as a college-educated cop, son of a local judge who has political ambitions for his boy, who chases down our villain. End of Part 1. 

In the second part of what is, in fact, a drama in three acts, Cross has become a local hero for his dubious role in restoring law and order. Tortured by the knowledge that he might be undeserving, he becomes drawn into the corruption of his fellow officers, led by the scary Ray Liotta. He is ashamed by the attempt to shake down Romina and, as a father of a young boy himself, appalled by his own actions.

In the third act (God, is this movie ever going to end, I was wondering at this point), fast-forward 15 years. The sons of the fathers meet – in a coincidence that felt unnaturally contrived – and live up to their social stereotypes: the one rich, spoiled and used to getting his way; the other poor, confused by having a black father and no knowledge of his real dad. Both are angry and trouble is inevitable.

Cianfrance first cast Gosling in Blue Valentine, when Gosling told him he wanted to act a bank robber and use a motorcycle; the part was duly written for him. The pitting of the two blue-eyed boys against each other is a good box office move, and they both imbue their respective characters with a dramatic intensity and self-righteous anger. Eva Mendes just smoulders with alternate passion and fury. The chase scenes and stunts are thrilling, and there are some memorable set pieces including a lovely one at little Jason’s christening in a highly ornate church; Luke slips in, clothed in his ragged tee shirt, covered in tattoos and cries quietly.

Most critics have hailed this as a brilliant, if slightly flawed movie. They have lauded Cianfrance’s audacious attempt to make a film with operatic, epic or Homeric proportions, a drama in three acts. Critics sometimes tend to over-analyse fairly straightforward themes, French, for instance, claiming to find echoes of the Trojan wars (AJ standing for Ajax, comes from Troy and so on). It is all a bit far fetched. It seems to me it boils down to the fact that the rich will always be rich, the poor will remain poor, and the sins of the fathers tend to re-visit their sons. But does it really require three acts to tell us this?

I fear I stand alone in finding theThe Place Beyond the Pines far too long, pretentious and over-ambitious, despite the excellent performances and cinematography.  More like the Brothers Grimm, complete with a ludicrous fairy tale ending. 

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