Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines turns its 140-minute length into a grueling gauntlet of class, gender and racial missteps strung together by relentless plot mechanics, but it at least has the decency to let the audience know what’s in store from the opening shot. Tracking Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) smears color and sound as he walks a fairground to his motorcycle show, barreling past the ugliness as Cianfrance hones in only on the forward motion, a sense of purpose divorced from all context in a self-contained bubble.

The rest of the film follows the same path, with showy technical skill put in service to a story that aims for Great American Novel status even as it cares at all times for plot. Each cut in the first act adds another broad stroke to its class caricature: Luke heads to the house of old flame Romina (Eva Mendes), only to discover he has an infant son, which leads him to Romina’s place of work, naturally a greasy spoon diner. The whiplash-inducing jumps of cliché only get worse when Luke, with hick accomplice Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) swiftly turns to bank robbery to provide for his child. This turns into an entirely different set of reductive class signifiers when Luke’s criminal ways bring him, and the focus of the narrative, into contact with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) and a lurch into middle-class woes that, gosh darn it, don’t look so different after all.

The incessant movement leaves no room for characterization, which is therefore supplied through simplistic cues. Luke walks around in a faded T-shirt pockmarked with holes and tears, worn inside-out as if whatever logo adorned it could not bear to be seen in such a state. Gosling looks downright cherubic next to Mendelsohn, though, always caked in grease and, in one shot, lit monstrously with raccoon eyes and sallow papyrus flesh. Mendes too has Romina’s poverty coded into her through unkempt hair and a face so weary and visually flattened that her bronze skin starts to meld with the diner’s wood paneling.

Her oneness with the background neatly summarizes the role women play in the picture Luke’s aggressive displays of macho angst, Avery’s less violent but equally forceful political power plays, and, later, the next generation’s variations on horrific masculine self-discovery create an alpha-male cesspool. The women, though, simply are: Romina is put on screen just long enough to frostily brush off Luke’s attempts at reconciliation, or to scream when he goes too far. Rose Byrne gets even less to do as Avery’s wife, merely nagging him to retire even after an incident on the job justifies her worries. They occupy a nebulous realm between maternal contrast to paternal assertion and victims of that male dominion, turning them into little better than blocking marks to organize where the men stand.

Most problematic is the men’s latent racism. Luke, decked out in his ratty shirt, blanches when he sees Romina’s new boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), well-dressed as he prepares to take Luke and Romina’s son to baptism. A Bickle-esque glimpse of racial hatred crosses Gosling’s face, motivating his turn to crime for the sake of getting one over this black man who would dare to raise his son. This dischord echoes in the next generation, when a similar glimpse of disgust can be seen in Avery’s son, AJ, and the warm love Kofi gives to the now-teenaged Jason (Dane DeHaan) means little compared to the boy’s innate need to follow in his biological father’s footsteps.

To his minor credit, Cianfrance seems to recognize this quality in his characters; after all, someone had to put the camera close on AJ’s face to study the kid’s surprise and displeasure at seeing Jason’s stepfather. But in the quest to craft an epic of existential bindings and a search for identity, The Place Beyond the Pines puts on airs of Greek tragedy it does not earn. It erects signposts but never paves the road to which they point. He leaves behind poverty porn and unexplored racial tensions as we move to the next chase, or to corruption within the police department, or to two boys fated to carry on their fathers’ confrontation.

Much more attention is paid to the loving detail placed on symmetrical visual details: Luke’s attempts to give Romina money echoed by Avery’s own. A shot of a motorbike racing down a country road repeated by that person’s son on a bicycle. The layout of the banks, with separating barriers between employee and customer, can be seen in the pharmacy counter Jason leaps to steal Oxycontin for a party. Even certain shot patterns and styles are so carefully set up one can predict the film off of them. For example, shots of Luke’s motorcycle getaways are framed in tight, jittery shots alongside his bike, and when the camera mimics that style from the back seat of Avery’s interceptor, the shift in visual focus acts as a clue for the coming narrative changes. Thus, the film is reduced to a game of spotting parallels and advance warnings, an exercise unto itself.

The actors dial in their performances (save for Gosling, whose line has been disconnected), telegraphing their abstract meaning to help keep things running smoothly. In place of their engagement with the material, intersecting generational lines and repetitions take on a false import redolent of the meaningless collisions of author-controlled fate in the work on Guillermo Arriaga, repetitions and reconfigurations designed to make a crowd trade critical thought for the satisfaction of recognition. But Cianfrance builds his house on sand, leaving his perilously undeveloped class, gender and racial identities to collapse from under the ending, which serves only to show a stereotypically black-acting suburban kid what a real thug looks like in the form of the poor.

Blue Valentine operated along similarly reductive lines, but The Place Beyond the Pines explodes the scope of the director’s oversimplification in his pursuit of a Big Statement. Cianfrance’s ambition has been routinely cited in connection to the film, but the myopic neglect he has for the spaces within and around his precise, dull structures marks a filmmaker oblivious to what he communicates through his work. It is the mark of an irresponsible poser, not a bold new talent.


  1. A brilliant, exhaustive piece of criticism, Jake.

    Whilst I enjoyed elements of Pines, I am in complete agreement of Cianfrance's inability to express the story in a way that is engaging and sufficient to withstand the exhaustive running time. I've seen it considered as a great character piece, yet everyone is so taciturn, opaque and formulaic that I could never evoke any sympathy with what could have been an inspired, father and son picture.

    1. See, I don't think it could ever have been an inspired father-and-son picture, at least not without a recalibration so massive it would no longer be a generational drama at all. It lives and dies on its symbolic import, which is so heavy-handed yet half-drawn as to collapse under its pretension. That it's so dressed up in reductive class and racial politics it barely recognizes makes it so much worse.

  2. I seemed to have liked the film a lot more than you did, but I liked it despite the problematic shortcomings in narrative progression and class relations.
    He's certainly a capable stylist - I see influences of films like, say, Frankenheimer's Grand Prix as inspirations rather recreations in Pines - but if he didn't have co-writers I'd say he's desperately in need of a different perspective on his script.

    1. I'm all about style, and I'm not one to pull the style over substance card because style, of course, IS the substance. But the substance in Cianfrance's style is so toxic that, barring a rapid maturation, I don't know how many more chances I want to give him.