“If you ride like lightning you’re gonna crash like thunder”.
The best film that you may not get an opportunity to see this year is The Place Beyond The Pines. The film has already scored great buzz at a few film festivals and is about to see a very limited theatrical release. It’s one of those films that absolutely deserves better, but somehow as you watch it you realize that this limited environment is a perfect match for the movie. This is not because the film isn’t good enough for wide release. It is. It’s because the movie is a rather intimate experience that just doesn’t seem like it belongs at your noisy cineplex where it must compete with the barrage of explosions and terrifyingly loud musical score. There’s a place for everything, and perhaps The Place Beyond The Pines has found its place beyond the pines and away from the hustle of the big box office world.
When you do settle in to watch this one, you should expect something almost akin to an anthology. While the story flows perfectly fine from A to B, it does so in three very distinctly defined acts that are pretty much mini-feature films in themselves. A baton is passed from one to the next, and you get the very real feeling that you’re leaving one place behind and entering another. It was uneasy at first like that brand new pair of shoes. But it quickly settled into the kind of comfort you only get just when those same shoes are about worn too thin to wear.
The film begins with young rebel Luke (Gosling). He’s a stunt motorcycle rider in a traveling show. Here he joins three other cyclists in a small globe cage where they entertain the masses. As he’s about to close a date in his old home town, he drops in on his old girlfriend Romina (Mendes). It’s been a year, and he’s in for a huge surprise. He has a son, and she’s raising the boy with another man. Luke decides to step up. He quits the show and decides to stick around to help support his son. But it isn’t going to be as simple as sticking around. He ends up resorting to bank robbery to make his goals. The robberies are almost absurd, but he manages to pull them off. Still, his life is spinning out of control…and then he encounters police patrolman Avery (Cooper).
The second “film” begins with this cop-and-robber encounter. The focus now changes to Avery. He’s got a lot to live up to, and he ends up thrown into the spotlight as a local hero. Avery also has a young son, and it reminds him of Luke to the point of obsession. Here the film becomes a bit of a new-age Serpico. Avery discovers his cop friends are corrupt and wants to do the right thing. Once again, doing the right thing won’t be simple for Avery, just as it wasn’t for Luke.
The final “film” takes us 15 years later, and Avery is running for State Attorney. He’s lost whatever innocence he might have once had and is now part of the political machine. His son AJ (Cohen) feels neglected by his obsessive father and turns to bad ways to get attention. Their lives are all about to change when he hooks up with another teen his age, and this world begins to come full circle.
Director Derek Cianfrance is likely best known for Blue Valentine. While that film had its moments, it was a rather unsettled and at times rushed effort. The Place Beyond The Pines is a much more mature film than that. Cianfrance has learned quite a bit about pacing. He covers a pretty complex journey here, and he manages to take you on a slow river ride that you’ll enjoy every lazy minute. The two stars don’t meet until over 45 minutes into the film. It’s a risky move that pays off huge dividends. Cianfrance takes his time with each character, refusing to short their own arc and journey before he’s willing to move on to the next. And when he moves on he’s completely committed to the change. Both Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper have their moments, and Cianfrance refuses to rush those moments. The result is that both actors get to play out their distinct character studies in an environment totally suited for that particular story. I haven’t seen compartmentalization of character done this well since Godfather Part II, and even then the film played them intertwined. I’ve not seen this device, at least this effectively, before.
Make no mistake. These are character studies. If you’re looking for adrenaline, sex, or rock and roll, head to the cineplex. I keep hearing that Ryan Gosling is the latest promising superstar. After you watch this film you’ll be able to safely remove the promising part. He’s arrived. I’ve watched Bradley Cooper since his recurring days on Alias. His rise has been quiet punctuated by one solid performance after another. He makes all of his noise on the screen, and Cianfrance knows how to use both wonderful actors. Everything else is there in complete support.
Speaking of support, the rest of the cast isn’t too shabby either. Eve Mendes gets to fall for yet another motorcycle stunt rider here. It’s a much more subtle performance that builds while she goes on an emotional rollercoaster that you see more in her eyes than her actions. Ray Liotta has a small but pivotal part to play here. Sure, he’s channeling his Good Fellas days here, but is that such a bad thing, after all? Bruce Greenwood delivers a familiar speech about knowing a main character’s father here. Did someone say James Kirk? There are a lot of throwaway characters here, but Cianfrance makes sure he uses what he needs before making the disposal.
This is a fine film that deserves more attention than it will get. I have high hopes for the eventual Blu-ray release.
I have to end with a bit of an unusual side note. The kind of experience one has seeing a movie can have just as much to do with the theater environment as anything on the screen. I had the pleasure of screening this one at Tampa Theatre. The almost 87-year-old theatre is one of the most enjoyable places on Earth to see a film. It’s one of our most richly historic buildings in Tampa and is one of the most beautiful buildings you will ever see. From the animated sky to the wonderful marble spires, remnants of a day most of us never really knew. The staff treated us like royalty. If you live in Tampa, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t, you’re not really a movie fan at all. If you don’t live in the area and you love historic theatres, it’s worth a place on your vacation itinerary. Check them out for yourself. Bang it here to learn more about the place: Tampa Theatre
You want to make an exceptional movie? “You gotta do that using your skill set.”