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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Place Beyond the Pines


U.S.: Derek Cianfrance 2012


ACT I. The Place

The Place Beyond the Pines. Nice title. Pretty good crime movie.  Wish it had been better. Anyaway, it‘s the Iroquois Indian phrase for Schenectady. And Schenectady, New York is where this pumped-and-running, madly ambitious Derek Cianfrance neo-noir, about father and sons, motorcycles and bank robberies and tragic destiny takes place — and where the movie was actually shot, super-documentary style, by director/co-writer Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger and Shame).

The show has a lot going for it. The story, about the collision between an outlaw and a cop, and its aftermath, is often riveting. The cast, an unusually good one, is topped by critics’ pet Ryan Gosling (as Luke, a carnival motorcyclist turned bank robber) and new-guy-in-town Bradley Cooper (as Avery, the cop who shoots Luke in a chase), with  distaff contributions  from Eva Mendes (as Romina, Luke’s ex-lover and the mother of his one-year-old boy) and Rose Byrne (as Jennifer, Avery’s wife and the mother of his one-year-old boy).

It’s mostly extremely well-acted, especially by Gosling and Cooper, and by Ray Liotta as a crooked cop named DeLuca  and by Ben Mendelsohn as a wonderfully sleazy and screwed up auto mechanic named Robin, the guy who introduces Luke to a life of crime. (Shouldn’t Mendelsohn and Sam Rockwell do a  brother act some time?)

Did I say The Place Beyond the Pines was ambitious? The movie, which is nearly two-and-a-half hours long and divided into three acts set fifteen years apart, was inspired, Cianfrance says, by the triptychs in Abel Gance’s 1927 silent grand-operatic bio-drama Napoleon — though why a three act drama  would be inspired by Gance’s three-paneled, wide screen effects, isn’t clear. (Maybe Cianfrance and Bobbitt should have revived the split-screen effects of  Napoleon, The Thomas Crown Affair or The Boston Strangler.) The script also shows traces of Jack London, whose fiction, like “The Call of the Wild“ Cianfrance says he devoured during the film’s preparation — and also probably by Bruce Springsteen. Mendelsohn has the Springsteenesque line, “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.” Amazingly he brings it off.

Besides showcasing Pines’ high ambitions, some of which are realized, it’s a terrific-looking film. The star cast looks great, of course, and Cianfrance and Bobbitt shot the movie in a kind of coldly sunny blur of metallic speed and near-constant movement that starts out with a five-minute-long tracking shot, the camera  held behind Luke’s head,  and follows him all the way into the motorcycle cage (or “Globe of Death”) where he plies his trade. At first.

ACT II. Beyond

The movie that follows that opening takes place very neatly — almost too neatly — in three acts.  Act One shows Luke at his tawdry show biz pinnacle and then shoves him off it, bringing on Romina, with whom Luke had a one night-or-so stand and who now is bringing up his child — with another guy (Mahershala Ali as Kofi), as it happens. When Romina catches Luke’s attention after the act, she asks him almost plaintively if he remembers her name. (He does.) Then, with Luke now filled with a new sense of fatherhood as carnival barker Billy Bigelow was when he sang The Soliloquy in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” (one of my favorite musicals and musical numbers by the way), Luke decides to man up and be a dad.

SPOILER ALERT (roll over to read)

He  quits his carny job, gets hired as  a mechanic by Robin, is as much of a natural as armed robbery at armed robbery as he is at bike-riding (a skill-set he felicitously combines), and gets killed when Avery chases him after a last, reckless robbery. This act or section is the best part of the movie, though it wouldn’t have worked to cut the story off here.

Act Two switches the focus over to Avery, an ambitious young cop who’s the son of a judge (Harris Yulin). Clean-cut, brainy, and highly motivated, Avery has his eyes on politics, but he’s so wired up tight during the chase, he shoots and kills Luke. Torn with guilt at leaving Luke’s boy fatherless, he’s also in a ticklish situation in the department. A bunch of the guys try to help him out by shaking down Romina and Kofi for the bank robbery money Luke gave her — but Avery decides to turn them all in. This section, which suggests a Sidney Lumet cop corruption drama like Serpico or Prince of the City, is almost as good as the first act, a movie which in turn suggests Gosling‘s earlier crime movie/neo-noir Driver.

Then comes Act Three,  fifteen years later.  Avery, who made it District Attorney,  is running for state Attorney General, and his son (Emory Cohen as A.J.) and Luke‘s son (Dane Dehaan as Jason) meet at school, and bond over drugs. Things get darker. Politics proves just s rough and devious a game as armed robbery or off-color police work, and the two kids neatly — too neatly– fulfill their fates. Like father, like son — maybe.

ACT III. The Pines


The Place Beyond the Pines, unlike most big-star Hollywood vehicles, is something the people involved obviously cared about, that they wanted to be great. Cianfrance and his fellow writers, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, reportedly wrote thirty or more drafts of this script — and then allowed the actors to improvise, and the Schenectady townspeople (who served as extras) to veto scenes they thought were spurious. I applaud the scriptwriters  for their perfectionism (and their openness to suggestion). But  in all those thirty drafts, they still never solved the third act.

If The Place Beyond the Pines were going to be a great film — and it had a chance — then the strongest part of the movie, or at  least as strong as the other two,  would have to be the Third Act, with its confrontation between the two families and between the sons of Luke and Avery. Unfortunately — and a lot of  critics seem to be in agreement on this — the third act of The Place Beyond the Pines is by far the weakest, partly because Cooper is around less, and Gosling isn’t around at all, and Cohen and Dehaan aren’t as compelling as the actors who play their dads. (Cohen also does most of his part in a kind of shallow pastiche of Marlon Brando‘s line readings in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One, which, as Joe Morgenstern notes, doesn’t work.) Besides, after the first two acts, where the director and actors catch us up in the flow of action, the dramatic devices are too easy to spot, the resolution too pat, and some of the scenes (like that last Coenesque clash in the woods) too hard to swallow.

That doesn’t mean though, that I’m not happy to see a movie that tries as hard as The Place Beyond the Pines, and that I won’t be rotting for Cianfrance to realize his grander, darker neo-noir ambitions some day. After all, two acts are better than none. And I’d rather see a young actor trying to copy Marlon Brando in an Elia Kazan movie than trying to copy Arnold Schwarzenegger in something by John McTiernan. Or a script that took 30 rewrites and still still didn’t make it,  than one that shouldn’t have been written at all. 

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6 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Place Beyond the Pines”

  1. Al Alexander says:

    Nice job giving away the whole movie.

  2. Chally says:

    “I won’t be rotting for Cianfrance…” Freudian or fiendish?

  3. spassky says:

    “(as Avery, the cop who….)”

    Holy shit, fuck you, Wilmington.

    [ed.: spoiler now marked at top of review; repeated spoiler edited here]

  4. Gabriel Vollard says:

    Are you really incapable of writing a review without giving away key plot elements? You know, it can be done. What a loser.

  5. spassky says:

    “Holy shit, fuck you, Wilmington.”

    Sorry about that. I’ve always really liked your reviews, and have been carefully reading around EVERY article about PBTP, so was a little pissed at first when I read that spoiler.

    THANK YOU for putting the spoiler alert at the top.

  6. spassky says:

    Okay, so I’ve seen the movie now and obviously don’t care about spoilers.

    What I have a problem with is people reading a weakness into the third act. I feel if Cianfrance had a few more fictional films under his belt, then the third act would be considered graceful and understated. Gosling and Cooper are electric, and though Dehaan is so very talented (and a dead ringer for Mendes and Gosling’s child)he doesn’t match up, but this is so very deliberate. The myth of Luke lives through the last frame, and I feel Cianfrance knows that underloading the third act only heightens this.

    A powerful movie that appeals to my fatherless heart, I feel this movie has a long long shelf life.

    And god how awesome is it whenever Ray Liotta shows up to masticate some dialogue and be what everyone believes he is one screen.

    Honestly, one of the biggest problems I had with the film was the absence of aging makeup– BUT this is totally in line with the masterful performances. Notice how Cooper’s limp is not as noticeable but wearier, Mendohlson is dirtier but not older. Eva seems to be the only one they applied makeup too (but that has to be that she’s just too damn beautiful).

    Whatever you feel about the performers and self-perceived “crime epics”– if you are a lover of film, you must see this movie as it is a very moving experience if you let it wash over you.

    To paraphrase: “watch as they defy gravity and centrifugal force, watch as they ride their motorcycles within inches of each other and fly at unimaginable speeds”… I’m glad Cianfrance followed our “heroes” after they had left the globe of death…


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon