I’m “biast” (pro): love Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
My heart is so heavy after this film. So heavy with this film.
What is the place beyond the pines? Where is it? The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t have anything concrete to say about this — we are left to conclude on our own that it might be, perhaps, where we go when we’ve reached a moment that went from being unimaginable to then being imperative to then being impossible — or not — slowly over the course of our lives. Or in blinks of the eye.
Or it could be a place that is something else entirely.
It feels like an act of subversion in the movie culture of the moment for an American — even an indie filmmaker like Derek Cianfrance, and please can he not get sucked up into the Hollywood machine — to create a film this satisfyingly meandering, as if it’s discovering how loose and confounding reality can be as it goes along, like maybe it’s mirroring the experience of actually living. Pines cannot be boiled down: not in plot, not in theme, not even in genre. It defies labeling — maybe “emotional thriller” comes closest to describing it, but that’s not quite right, either — and it defies pinning. It is two intertwined stories about a criminal and a cop, and, rather wonderfully and unexpectedly, their fears about fatherhood, but this is not a film about family per se. It lets us follow around two men who are never quite what they seem, even to themselves, who suffer under the delusions that surround their actions, and yet it’s this is not a film about identity per se. It is a story that doles itself out parsimoniously, though if you pay close attention you might catch on to what it’s holding back — or perhaps only think you’re catching on — and yet it is not concerned with tricking you or fooling you or even holding you in suspense.
And yet Pines is not an art film, as Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine — his disconcertingly perceptive tale of the dissolution of a marriage — might be called. It’s more like the sort of broody, restive drama Martin Scorsese might have made in the 1970s: a film that is not in the least mysterious about what’s going on but leaves you turning over what it all means, and afraid that maybe it means nothing more than that the world is a mess and humans are a mess both collectively and individually.
As if the unforeseen untidy pleasure of rummaging through the experience of a film long after it’s finished weren’t enough, there is rumpled greatness in the central performances: Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March, Drive) as Luke, stunt motorcycle driver turned bank robber to support his infant son, and Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover Part II) as Avery, a straight-arrow cop who is uncomfortable wearing the mantle of “hero” when it is thrown over him. They bring to what could be uninspired generic characters depths of sometimes surprising emotion and make the detours into intriguing contradiction that Cianfrance — writing with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder — burdens them with feel wholly plausible. They’re contradictions that aren’t contradictions, even, maybe, but rather hints that these two men are more alike than unlike.
That’s the thing that I keep coming back to, the provocative notion that perhaps Avery, at sea in a swamp of corruption in the Schenectady, New York, police department, has more in common with Luke than with his fellow officers — Luke is, at least, an honest crook. And there’s a shared smallness, almost a naivete, to their separate ambitions and expectations for themselves in their work — Avery is almost shocked to discover the misdeeds his coworkers get up to, although they’re nothing truly surprising; Luke is overjoyed at the takings from a small-town bank that cannot amount to much more than a few thousand dollars — and a shared fear over what happens to sons who lack fathers to guide them as they grow up.
There’s nothing grand or sweeping in Luke’s or Avery’s stories, or in how they cross paths. Cianfrance’s astonishing long, uncut takes are often languid, as in our first introduction to Luke, as he strolls through a roadside carnival to his stunt show, or else ironically understated, as in how a patrolling Avery, in our introduction to him, gets sucked into an ongoing police chase seemingly as an afterthought. And though Pines has a sense of the epic about it, in how small decisions and brief moments have long-reaching impact, there’s mostly a disquieting intimacy at work here, wherein the hopes and anxieties of two men are laid bare only to be dashed. The place beyond The Place Beyond the Pines is one haunted by wondering how much of that is their own fault, how much was inevitable no matter what they did, and whether anything at all could have led either down different paths.