This weekend saw the 3D re-release of Jurassic Park. I won’t be writing about that in this blog. You know why? Because it’s goddamn Jurassic Park — one of the greatest special-effects landmarks in modern cinema history — on 3D and IMAX! If you don’t already know what to expect from such a movie, or if you aren’t inclined to rush out and go see it, then I honestly don’t know what to tell you.
I was always more interested in using this blog for the purpose of trying something new. I try to find the most interesting movies in theaters — even if they’re occasionally out of the way — and either warn my readers away from a huge disappointment or encourage them to support the film, as the case may be.
The Place Beyond the Pines, for example, is a lesser-known film that absolutely deserves your time and money.
The title, by the way, translates roughly into the Mohawk word “Schenectady,” which is also the name of the upstate New York town where we lay our scene. It’s probably just as well that this film was given such a generic title, because the narrative of this movie is sprawling. There is so much going on in all of this film’s multiple layers that I’ll have to take this one character at a time.
We open with a stunt motorcyclist named Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling). While touring with a circus operation, Luke meets back up with Romina (Eva Mendes), some girl Luke had a one-night stand with the last time his circus was in town. In short order, Luke discovers that Romina inadvertently made him a father some time ago and refused to tell him about it.
See, Romina is trying to get her life back on straight. She’s got a steady waitressing job, she’s going to school, she’s got her mother to help look after little Jason, and she’s got a good boyfriend who provides a house for this whole family. Then Luke comes along.
After quitting his gig at the circus, Luke stays in town to try and be a good father. This goal, while admirable, takes a huge amount of denial. First of all, Luke is constantly dressed in a ratty inside-out T-shirt, every inch of his skin is covered in tattoos, he has no job or much of any marketable skill (aside from driving a motorcycle), he’s a chain smoker, and every other word out of his mouth is a curse. The guy is completely unfit to be a parent.
Then there’s Romina. She’s so desperate to move on and build a good life for herself and her son, but she doesn’t have the power to stop Luke. She can’t say no to a man who wants to be with his son. In fact, she’s probably holding out hope that Luke will actually succeed in finding a way to make all of this work. Not that she would take him back if he did, but at least Jason would be better off for having a good father. Of course, that’s not how things work out, but we’ll get to that.
Perhaps most importantly, Luke is gifted with the miraculous talent of ruining everything he touches. He’s impulsive, he’s short-sighted, he has a very nasty temper, and he expects to get everything he wants. There’s a great ambitious streak in Luke that might serve him well if he had an ounce of intelligence. Instead, Luke’s entirely pure and good intentions take him straight to hell. That’s one of the film’s more prominent themes, in point of fact, but we’ll get to that later as well.
Eventually, Luke is taken in by Robin Van Der Zee (Ben Mendelsohn, who’s played a depressing number of sleazy characters in his career), the owner of an auto shop. Unfortunately, because his shop is located on the ass end of nowhere, business is awful. So, to supplement his meager income, Robin holds up the occasional bank. He’s gotten away with it for this long by being smart and cautious, which are of course two things that Luke is most certainly not.
Inevitably — pray forgive me for spoiling something that happens 45 minutes in, but it’s kinda central to the premise — things go south. Luke trades shots with a police officer and dies in bloody fashion. Meanwhile, the police officer (Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper) gets treated like a hero for taking a bullet while killing a bad guy.
At this point, you may be wondering why the film spent a third of its running time with one main character only to kill him off and trade for another. Well, for one thing, Luke is a constant offscreen presence through the entire film. All of his choices and actions affect the plot and the characters in huge ways after he dies. For another thing, it’s absolutely vital that when everyone else brushes off Luke as some kind of one-dimensional villain who had to be killed for everyone’s safety, we know better.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch Avery’s inner conflict as he learns more about the man he gunned down. As the father of a young boy himself, Avery feels a great deal of pity for the mother and son whom Luke left behind. Of course, that sympathy goes into overdrive when some of his corrupt friends on the force (led by Ray Liotta in the role of Detective Deluca) conduct an illegal search on Romina’s house to find the money Luke stole. Of course, the money is later split between Avery and his compatriots, which really tears at his conscience.
So Avery starts making some political deals as he brings the corruption to light. Powered by the various favors he collects and his status as a hero cop, Avery begins a prosperous career in politics. His campaign to clean up a city started out by murdering a desperate father and ratting out his colleagues. Were his actions defensible? Certainly. Were they borne of good intentions? Most definitely. But that doesn’t mean they won’t come back to bite him later on. Also — as with Luke — there’s the distinct possibility that Avery might be too ambitious for his own good.
Things get even worse fifteen years later, when Avery is running for State Attorney General. At the same time, Avery’s son (AJ, now played by Emory Cohen) meets up with a now-teenaged Jason (played by Dane DeHaan). I won’t talk any more about what happens after that, except to say that everything really hits the fan when Jason finally learns more about his past.
Consequences and father/son relationships are two other very prominent themes of this movie, and they’re both explored in phenomenal ways. The script keeps coming up with new ways for the characters to get burned by their own mistakes, secrets, and good intentions. It makes for some exquisite drama, especially since we all know that the characters deserve everything they get. Additionally, given that this movie killed off Ryan fricking Gosling halfway in, we know that no one is guaranteed to come out alive when the fat hits the fryer.
Derek Cianfrance deserves a great deal of credit for making this deeply emotional drama so riveting. Between this and Blue Valentine, Cianfrance has established himself as a very powerful filmmaker who is willing and able to break the hearts of audiences in ways that are refreshingly intriguing and bold. Still, even more credit should be given to the cast. I’ve no doubt that this film would have completely fallen apart if not for the superlative performances by Gosling and Cooper. They do incredible work in selling the characters’ vulnerability and regret, and the results are captivating to watch.
Ray Liotta and Ben Mendelsohn both turn in very good work as well, though I’m sure it helps that they’ve both been typecast as sleazy and corrupt characters for so long. By a similar token, Dane DeHaan is quickly becoming typecast as a troubled and tragically misunderstood youth. Still, DeHaan will outgrow that sort of role quickly enough, and I’m eager to see what happens when he does. Guy’s got serious talent.
So, does all of this mean that the film is perfect? Hell no!
For one thing, there are the visuals. As much as I respect Cianfrance for his screenwriting skills, his knack for working with actors, and his blunt emotional honesty, his camerawork in this movie ranges from passable to dreadful. I get what he was going for with the close-ups, but Cianfrance zooms way too close onto the faces of his actors and he does it way too frequently. Even worse, he occasionally films some action scenes with a camera that is unforgivably shaky. Throw in a score that might have worked if it was given in smaller doses, and it all reeks of a director who’s trying way too hard. That’s especially puzzling, since Cianfrance has proven himself entirely capable of doing this naturally. Maybe he just needs more confidence and/or movies under his belt, I don’t know.
Moving on to problems in the cast, let’s talk about AJ. I was really confused to find that this beloved son of a wealthy politician had grown into such a punk. He’s a bully, he’s a junkie, he’s an idiot, he’s a total waste of space in general. I was curious to know more about how he got this way, but the movie offered us basically nothing. That was a huge disappointment, and it damaged the film’s second half considerably. Of course, it doesn’t help that Emory Cohen doesn’t look a thing like Bradley Cooper, nor does he look remotely like a high schooler.
Then there’s Eva Mendes, who is thoroughly useless in the film’s second half. Even worse, out of all the adult members of the cast, Mendes was inexplicably the only one to get age makeup after the 15-year time jump. And it was pitifully ugly age makeup at that. It’s a huge disappointment that Mendes was given such an interesting character who got absolutely nothing to do through half the movie.
Still, at least Mendes got a few good scenes in this movie. That’s more than I can say for Rose Byrne, who was totally and utterly wasted as Avery’s wife. Byrne is such a talented woman and I would love to see her act opposite Bradley Cooper in any other movie, but Byrne’s presence was entirely pointless here. Her character was so inconsequential and unmemorable that the film would have been better off if she had been left on the cutting room floor. That’s a particularly huge shame, as Jennifer might have done so much more to help explain why AJ turned out to be such an asshole.
Finally, I felt like the movie might have gone deeper into Jason’s unusual family. We get a few brief scenes of Jason with his parents, but I never really got a bearing on how he felt toward them while the ghost of his unknown father was still hanging around. Even better, we see that Jason’s mother and stepfather have blessed him with a younger half-sister. I don’t think the two of them trade a single line of dialogue. I don’t even think his sister was given a name. This massive element of the family contributed absolutely nothing, and that just didn’t feel right.
To be clear, The Place Beyond the Pines is still a movie I recommend wholeheartedly. The film explores a lot of very deep themes in ways that are both captivating and novel. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are worth the price of admission by themselves. The movie does have enough minor flaws to keep it from being truly great, but none of them distract from the deeper emotions that are so brilliantly evoked.