If you choose to see Ryan Gosling’s new drama, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” this week, you might be getting three films for the price of one. That is how wide in scope director Derek Cianfrance’s second feature film is. Spanning over numerous decades and generations of fathers and sons, it is a gripping crime thriller that is completely fearless in its ambition. The story is told in an awe-inspiring fashion, but to reveal how it does this would be a disservice to the experience. In an effort to get the most out of the film, it is best to go in without knowing much. That said, it is still feasible to discuss the extraordinary strengths of the film without getting into spoiler territory.
First thing’s first: Cianfrance’s debut film, “Blue Valentine,” would not be a bad starting point before approaching “The Place Beyond the Pines.” In “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance shows his talents for showcasing raw human drama. He has done the same with “Pines,” and in the process has incorporated elements of the heist film. What makes Cianfrance’s works so powerful is their documentary-like feel, which gives the impression we are watching real people. The camera follows the characters as if we are witnessing their lives, and not watching a glossed-up Hollywood picture. The entire experience feels naturalistic, and most importantly genuine. It is challenging to come to the realization you are not watching the corrosion of a person’s life. That is how convincing the picture feels at times. If you are enthusiastic about the technicalities of film, pay attention to the masterfully crafted opening tracking shot. It is quite a marvel how they managed to pull it off.
Gosling is the clear-cut shining star of the film, and you will not be able to take your eyes off him. In one of his most outstanding roles yet, his character evokes sympathy while at the same time puts fear into the hearts of the audience. He plays a tough-as-nails, though still vulnerable, tattooed stunt-rider with an almost troubling fatherly perseverance. Bradley Cooper also soars as a morally troubled rookie cop, who happens to get tangled into the intricacy of Gosling’s scheme. Eva Mendes crafts a notably impressive performance as the mother to Gosling’s child. A heavy amount of the film’s emotional weight is achieved from her character. Lastly, we have both Dane DeHaan and Ben Mendelsohn who verify themselves as two rising Hollywood stars to look out for. Ray Liotta also makes an appearance because what is a proper crime film without him?
Moral ambiguity lingers over every frame of the film. Ethical boundaries are explored without judgment. There are no pronounced “good guys” or “bad guys.” Characters give you a reason to both admire and detest them. At one moment, a character’s motivation may foment bitter criticism. However, the viewers may find themselves exchanging those accusations for empathetic pity as the film advances. Gosling’s character, in particular, stands as the film’s gleaming anti-hero, and what a memorable anti-hero he is! His performance is sometimes reminiscent of the role he was given in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” in 2011, but still stands on its own as a separate experience. The film frequently analyzes the bond between father and son to a poetic caliber. Multiple, subtle parallels are constant throughout the film, and discovering these moments of subdued beauty is chill-inducing. The dauntingly grand mythology could be the only setback keeping audiences from embracing it entirely.
“Pines” is a monster of a film and its length will no doubt have viewers asking where it is headed and when it will wrap up. Various times, I mistakenly thought it was coming to a close, only for the film to keep progressing further. Cianfrance was seeking to paint a portrait of a colossal saga. All scenes serve an applicable purpose and cutting the film 20-something minutes shorter, which most likely could have been done, would only be detrimental to the overall product. Regardless, viewers are going to feel the runtime. For some, this may have them itching towards the exit doors and “Pines” may feel like an exhausting experience. For others, the sentimental toll of the story will take them by storm and leave them emotionally drained.
Dealing with issues of family, parenthood and consequences, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a monumental achievement and one of the most ambitious epics in recent memory. Recurring allegorical themes come full circle and attest to a clear narrative direction. Cianfrance has this story mapped out from the beginning. It is so jam-packed that it could have been a trilogy or a mini-series. Cianfrance does not falter for a second or let the harsh undertaking delude his grand vision. He aspires for greatness and executes it flawlessly. Some may dispute that the film’s final acts never reach the strength of the first half of the film, but no one can say they do not put in the effort. By all means, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is the first truly spectacular film of 2013 and a new modern classic. It is hard to stop thinking about it.
Robert Gabe is a second-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.