The Place Beyond the Pinesby Kavish Chetty / 19.07.2013
I like going to the cinema uncorrupted by anticipation. This film review itself is now in jeopardy: I have to balance the desires to remark on aesthetics, on social refraction in film, on form and theme, while at the same time trying to keep the viewing experience as intact as possible for its audience. This, to me, was the organising viewing pleasure of Place Beyond the Pines – I came to it without the benefit of trailers which ruin plot, commentaries which spoil the virginity of genuine surprise; without, even, a full look at the poster, which from the oblique vantage at which I glanced at it, made this movie look like a western, three bodiless visages presiding over a dark, grey mist of frontier mythology. At the risk of admiring too graciously – a sin among the cynical ages – Beyond the Pines is the best thing I’ve seen this year: slow, brooding, atmospheric, restless, emotively-charged, dense with existential threat, tense and engrossing, ranging across generations and returning in its epilogue with a sense of unity and cyclicality that is ordinarily lost among the fragmented, alienated moments of contemporary living.
Beyond the Pines is a psychodrama about father-son relations; it doesn’t fantasise the grit of these relations out of existence, nor does it make sacred the masculine mythologies of invincible power, in the debris of which modern males are slowly starting to realise their marginalisation from the centre of all things, and the anxiety and crisis that comes with relinquishing centuries of real and symbolic domination. It does this in spite of its materials being the very stuff from which male mythology is conjured: motorcycle drivers, bank robberies, policemen, absent fathers, peer-pressure; a whole culture of fated men in positions of precarious and corrosive power and prestige. It is among the film’s triumphs that it gives us a recognisable world – of classes, and genders and races – and then rather than present them as ordinary and natural, it fills up its silences with guilt, doubt and indecision: it makes human actions suddenly seem meaningful, having impacts that register in their full force later on in history.
It has the ambitious and epic scope of something like the multigenerational family sagas that Jonathan Franzen writes, and its form is the triptych, three related stories, motions in time apart from another, each put together as studies in character. Its pacing is extraordinary; director Derek Cianfrance has no tenderness for his characters, switching subjectivities and dispatching characters’ mortalities and points-of-view with an anarchic whim which suggests this film is both about people and about a far grander thematisation of existentialism in which these characters are bit-players, actors in a seething cosmos of contingency. The central and connective node of its three stories is about a young cop who responds to a call on the shortwave regarding a fleeing fugitive bank robber. The aftermath of this meeting has profound emotional consequences for him (he’s played by Bradley Cooper, whose roles are ordinarily in thrall to a disastrously mainstream logic, but if you can efface those poisoning memories, his performance is rather good). Characters in this film do not respond in the archetypes of cinema; they break down in ecstasies of real dread, real ambiguity.
It must be said that the performances in this film are so good as to be actually remarkable. Ryan Gosling is lean, desperate and psychically off-kilter with the weight of responsibility to his discovered child. He plays a motorcycle stunt man drifting through an old city with his circus outfit, learning of a fathered kid he left behind last time. Eva Mendes plays the mother – a conflicted woman in a new relationship, but still irrepressibly attracted to Gosling, or Luke Glanston’s, sociopathic charisma. Glanston’s ways of working out his place in the impoverished sprawl of Schenectady have the curious marks of a man lurching his way through destiny-less burn-out. Along the journey, he meets chop-shop pal, Robin, played by Ben Mendelsohn with agitated, homoerotic energy – likeable and suspicious all at once, Robin draws him into new affairs which finally implicate him in a historical legacy he leaves his son to play out. Ray Liotta makes a turn as a corrupt police chief – the corruption thematic is multiplied throughout the story – and his performance is uneasy, eerie-eyed, apotheosising the glib ways in which corruption comes to haunt the possibly innocent. He’s not the only spectre of corruption. It comes back fifteen years later to play out between sons bequeathed their father’s sins. These performances are all nothing short of superb, so aesthetic as to actually collide with your senses; they’re emotionally charged, driving through trauma and melancholy, ennui, rage, impotence, loneliness and self-destruction; rarely have I felt these things in cinema so intensely as I did in Place Beyond the Pines.
But there is a crime drama thread also linking together its disparate set-pieces, and the film plays tension masterfully – the best car-chase scene I’ve ever watched is here. It is so because it’s not the impossible circuit-tour through stunts and explosions, but a quiet, thrilling pursuit which gives you the real sense of a dread beginning to take over as options run out. I am now done trying to be as evasive as possible in the role of secret-keeper, bureaucratic overseer of the film’s enigmas and surprises. Watch Place Beyond the Pines because it’s just fucking great cinema – emotive, impactful and thrilling.