Reeling Backward: The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
An uneven, evocative drama that generated strong opinions a decade ago but then disappeared from the public consciousness is deserving of another look.
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It's inevitable that even someone who watches hundreds of new (or new to me) movies a year will have a few fall through the cracks. This is especially true during the year-end runup to critic group awards, when I and other film journalists will consume ungodly amounts of cinema in the days leading up to voting.
One of the reasons I strongly prefer physical media is that it gives me an opportunity to set some DVD screeners aside and hope to catch up with them someday -- even though my track record of doing so is admittedly poor.
I was surprised to shuffle through a pile of these recently and find that "A Place Beyond the Pines" had been languishing for a full decade. I recall it had both very strong champions and detractors when it came out, then disappeared into the semi-anonymity that often happens to films that failed to meet expectations.
I found an uneven, flawed movie that is still quite evocative, and one I'll surely remember. I have experienced films that I saw just once years or even decades ago, but I still can recall vividly. I have a feeling this will be one of them.
Director (and co-writer) Derek Cianfrance had made a big splash with 2010’s “Blue Valentine” also starring Ryan Gosling, who was not yet the superstar he is today but wandering through his post-heartthrob phase after “The Notebook,” choosing challenging and eclectic roles like “Half Nelson,” “Drive” and the criminally unappreciated “Lars and the Real Girl.”
“Pines” did not bomb at the box office but also didn’t light any fires. It had been talked up as an awards contender and got overall decent reviews from critics. But moviegoers were fairly indifferent, as evidenced by its 75% audience score, low by Rotten Tomatoes standards.
Cianfrance’s Hollywood dance card quickly grew scanty, with only one other feature film directing credit since. Though he’s bounced back with an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of “The Sound of Metal.”
Audiences were put off by the atypical story structure of “Pines,” which is separated into roughly 45-minute thirds with only a little overlap between, and sees Gosling’s character disappear after the first act, when Bradley Cooper’s is introduced. That’s because the latter, a do-right cop named Avery Cross, kills the former, Luke Glanton, a motorcycle-riding, bank-robbing outlaw.
Let’s face it, when people line up for a movie with a poster featuring two hot young actors, there’s an unspoken expectation they’ll share more than six seconds of screen time together.
I can’t help thinking the film’s vague, artsy-sounding title didn’t help its prospects. Set and shot in Schenectady, it’s taken from the Mohawk name for the region, and acts within the story as both a literal and figurative destination the characters come to visit during times of crisis.
Cooper’s Avery, a judge’s son who went to law school and passed the bar but become a beat cop to build his street cred, is nearly killed there twice.
Cooper in 2012 was then mostly known as a glib comedic actor from “The Hangover” and its sequel, plus the ill-conceived movie reboot of “The A-Team.” Co-star Eva Mendes is the only performer to appear significantly in all three sections, but is pretty firmly shunted into two-dimensional girl in the background by the Y-chromosome screenwriting team of Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.
Avery’s section wades through grim, familiar territory as the upstanding idealist being recruited and then threatened by corrupt cops, led by an as-always commanding Ray Liotta. It’s stolid, effective stuff but plays as cinematic hand-me-downs.
The last act of the movie shifts ahead 15 years later, with the teenage sons of Luke and Avery, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), respectively, forming an unexpected, star-crossed friendship. They can’t hold our attention as well, especially the way Gosling’s moody, tragic Luke does in the first third.
The last bit feels more like an overlong coda to the main story rather than capping it, and the movie faces the unfortunate reality of losing steam as it goes along rather than building it.
The strongest section is the first, where Luke chooses to give up a freewheeling life of semi-fame as a traveling circus stunt-rider upon finding out his old fling, Romina (Mendes), had their baby. He wants to do the right thing and be a father and provider, but there’s not a lot of need for his daredevil skillset. Plus, Ro has already taken up with Kofi, a solidly dependable guy played by Mahershala Ali in one of his first notable screen roles.
Decked out with a platinum blond dye job and extensive tattoos, including a dripping dagger at the corner of his eye like a malevolent teardrop, Gosling’s performance is mysterious and compelling, playing a guy whose sudden bursts of violence and lightning-quick emotional pivots are unfathomable, even to him.
Luke can juke and react faster than anybody seated on a motorcycle, but he’s thick-witted and slow-footed off it.
He falls in with Robin, an erstwhile mechanic living on the edge of the pines played by Ben Mendelsohn, who throws him some work and a rundown trailer to live in. Robin teaches him the bank robbing trade, having pulled off some jobs solo years ago, and they team up for some new heists where Luke rides his getaway bike into the back of a box truck to throw off the cops.
Robin’s an interesting guy — a loser who probably failed every important test in high school but knows machines and motives. He instructs Luke to have the bank tellers lay the cash out on the counter rather than putting it in a bag, to prevent the inclusion of dye packs, and to choose older women as the most vulnerable targets.
He’s cagey and careful, and is willing to pull the plug the minute things get hot. Luke being Luke, he quickly gets hooked on the loot and the thrill.
Mendelsohn adds weighty notes of longing and loneliness to Robin, who is stubbornly independent but harbors an almost puppydog-like yearning for friendship.
Without Robin’s help, Luke mucks up his next job — even wearing the wrong motorcycle helmet so his face is visible during the robbery. Chased and cornered in a house, he is killed when Avery, a rookie with less than a year on the force, bursts into the room and fires, the mortally wounded Luke returning a shot into the cop’s knee.
Avery is hailed as a hero, and we see early on the willingness to manipulate and prevaricate when he lets the DA (Bruce Greenwood) lead him into the convenient story that Luke fired first. He tries to turn his newfound status into a promotion to lieutenant and special assignment, but is turned down by the bureaucracy-bound chief.
When Liotta’s detective Deluca shakes down Romina for the money Luke gave her and hands most of it over to Avery, he’s smart enough to see it as bait to lure him into their grift schemes. One gets the sense Avery only decides to turn snitch because he sees it as the more promising avenue to advance his career.
It works, and in the last act Avery is now the DA himself running for Attorney General of New York state. A.J. is his problem child, a wild kid who dresses and talks like a Long Island hoodlum and likes to get high. His parents split long ago — Rose Byrne plays Avery’s now ex-wife — and A.J. revels in being left alone in a big house while his dad tries to become the chief law enforcement official in the state.
Even in his rebellion, A.J. is lazy.
The new kid at school in a boring town, he immediately makes Jason out as a fellow druggie, and needles and cajoles him into a score that results in their getting arrested the first night after they met. They are sprung owing to Avery’s influence, but after Jason finds out A.J.’s dad killed his, they’re set on a path of collision.
DeHaan isn’t give much to work with, but manages to evoke glimpses of Luke’s fatalism and tendency toward rash moves.
As for Avery, he starts out as straight shooter (literally) who becomes increasingly overwhelmed by his own ambition. His one redeeming trait is that he feels genuine pain and remorse that both he and Luke had 1-year-old sons and are forever connected by that tragic day, which marked Luke’s end and Avery’s rise.
Oddly, the filmmakers made little attempt to age up the characters for the last act. Mendes gets a little dark makeup under the eyes and Cooper receives an executive/politician haircut, but that’s about it. Mendelsohn actually seems to age backwards, eagerly buddying up to Jason when he turns up searching for stories about his pops.
Thinking about the movie after finally seeing it a decade late, I wonder how it would’ve worked in reverse order, perhaps using the modern-day setting as a storytelling bookend, then going into the middle section where Avery Cross first made a name for himself, and then arriving at the root of the tale with Luke’s star-crossed bandit.
A more complex time-slip style, in which all three stories advance and intercut together, would also hold potential. Cianfrance was initially inspired by the silent film “Napoleon” and its triptych format, in which three different scenes play simultaneously on a double-split screen.
There’s a lot going in in “The Place Beyond he Pines” — probably too much. It’s still an often-riveting piece of filmmaking about the choices men make and how they echo beyond our own mortality. It’s got an indescribable haunting quality, like a piece of grubby mythology passed down from father to son as warning.
I’m glad I circled back, eventually.