Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

Alternate Title:  Sins of the Fathers

One sentence synopsis:   The decisions made by a stuntman/bank robber and a young cop reverberate down to the lives of their sons.

Things Havoc liked: What a strange movie this is.

Luke Glanton is a motorcycle stunt rider, played by Ryan Gosling, an actor I've known about but never had much interaction with. He works for a traveling carnival that stops every so often in Schenectedy, New York (the titular Place Beyond the Pines in Mohawk). One night he learns that he has an infant son from a previous fling with Romina (Eva Mendes), his ex-girlfriend who now lives with another man. He quits his job and moves in with a mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn, one of my favorite character actors) and tries to earn money to support his son whether Romina or her new boyfriend want him to or not, turning ultimately to bank robbery. I really don't have much of an impression of Gosling, as I haven't seen most of his previous work, but his character reminds me a great deal of the "Born to Lose" whack-jobs that De Niro and Pacino were talking about in Heat, the sort of guy who seems destined to fail, who may even want to. He makes bone-headed decisions, but given what we know of his impulsive, none-too-bright nature, they make sense, and it's no surprise to anybody when they finally bring him into a violent confrontation with the police.

Enter Avery Cross, played by the ubiquitous Bradley Cooper, a young cop who happens to run into Glanton. The aftermath of this run-in forms the transition into the second portion of the movie, focusing entirely on him and his temptations from the corrupt cops that surround him in the Schenectedy police department. Front and center among such corrupt cops is Ray Liotta, doing his best sleaze routine, while Bruce Greenwood (another favorite character actor) tries to bust them all and Harris Yulin (and another), Avery's father, offers advice rooted not in hoary cliches of doing the right thing, but in a lifetime of experience dealing with the law and the enforcement thereof. Like the previous sequence, this one presents the character of Avery well enough that we understand why he does the various things he does even as he's doing them, and though Avery's choices are significantly better than Luke's, the forks of the dilemmas they are on are made perfectly clear to the viewer. The consequences of the decision Avery makes vis-a-vis his corrupt fellows make sense given his character as we understand it, and sets the stage for yet another transition.

Enter Jason and AJ (unknowns Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen), sons respectively of Luke and Avery, who fifteen years later, find themselves attending the same high school and meeting over a shared desire (like most high schoolers) to party and get high. As before, these two are excellent, capturing perfectly the twisted and even borderline-sociopathic mentality of real teenagers trying to grapple with their world. Jason seeks to know more about his mysterious father, while AJ seeks to know more about the ways in which he can mess himself up with drugs, and both searches lead approximately to where you might expect them to, though not necessarily with the results you would find in most films. I can't of course give away more than that, but despite the disjointed nature of these three stories, the film overall does an excellent job of connecting them into one solid whole.

What can I say then? The acting, overall, is excellent. Every actor, whether I've heard of them or not, brings a level of realism to their characters that one rarely encounters in film. Even Bradley Cooper and Ray Liotta, whom I like but usually see playing over-the-top crazy-men (Silver Linings Playbook, Limitless, everything-Liotta-has-ever-done) are restrained here, barely ever raising their voices as they go through motions we could actually see. The stories connect well, showing the realistic effects of the actions the characters take, be it coping with the aftermath of a shooting or the consequences of a marriage where one party is addicted to a job the other doesn't approve of. Corruption and robbery aside, the movie gets along more or less without villains. Even the "other man" (Mahershala Ali) who Romina winds up with as Luke is trying to win her back is portrayed as (ironically) the most responsible and reasonable person in the entire film. And overall, despite the knitting together of three fairly disconnected stories, the flow of events from one to the next is strong enough that we easily come along for the ride. A well-made, well-orchestrated, well-acted, well done production overall.

Things Havoc disliked: So then I'm left with trying to figure out why I didn't like it more.

I saw this movie with two other people, both of whom thought it was superb. I didn't. And yet they well be right, because when I look back on the film, I have only poor excuses to give for why I'm not singing this thing's praises.

To start with actual flaws, this movie is long. Three short-film-length stories crammed together are inevitably going to be I suppose, but it runs nearly two and a half hours, and I was checking my watch by the 100 minute mark. It's not that the movie is boring, nor that the plot can be predicted (although one can guess fairly quickly that Luke's character is not in for a particularly happy ending), just that the flow and pacing of the film are very slow. Normally I don't mind that so much... but... well maybe I do. None of the scenes in retrospect are un-necessary, yet all of them went on a bit longer than I would have held them, which in aggregate probably tacked a good 20-30 minutes of filler onto the film in packets of ten to fifteen seconds.

There are also (inevitably in a movie this complex) a number of... questionable character decisions. For one thing, if you're going to tell a teenage kid that his father was a bank robber and criminal, and give him the man's name, shouldn't you also mention the incredibly important circumstances that led to him no longer being here, ones which if viewed in the wrong light could lead to a number of unfortunate consequences? Why instead give the kid all the resources he needs to find these things out without any context? And while we're on the subject, while this film does avoid most of the cliches that come with law-and-crime character studies like this, one thing it lands hard on is the whole "I cannot bear to tell my children the truth" routine, even when the truth is explosive and the consequences of the children finding out on their own even more so. Yes, I know that not everyone wants to speak about past traumas, particularly to their kids. But no fewer than three different characters play this card at one point or another, to uniformly disastrous consequences. Family secrets are a thing, I agree, but it left me at least watching the whole last third of the film thinking that all of this drama could have been avoided if someone at some point had just said the things they should have said. Maybe that's the point of the film, in which case, well done. But it happened so often and with such regularity during the latter stages of the movie, that I began to get the impression that I was watching an "idiot plot", defined as a plot which would not exist if the participants were not all idiots.

Final thoughts:    No, Place Beyond the Pines is not an Idiot Plot, and no, I have not given the film away by saying that there is drama and tension in the last third. But these reservations are what kept me from praising this movie with the same, fulsome approbation that everyone else who saw the movie seems to have. Well-acted, well-shot, well-directed and well-written, I should not really be looking for anything else when I go to see a movie. And yet the slow pace and questionable decisions by many of the characters all conspired to leave a lukewarm taste in my mouth.

I've agonized for several days over what to score this movie, as on the one hand, these are my reviews which are intended to reflect my reaction. And yet on the other hand I do hold to the notion that it is possible for an opinion, even a subjective one, to be erroneous if not outright wrong. It is one thing to dislike Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but quite another to claim that they are "bad films", which is what a low review grade indicates in some regard. And yet on the other hand, how high can I possibly rate a film I didn't love before I'm just repeating what other people think instead of what I do. As such, I therefore must give the movie what I think it deserves from me, cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of viewers would praise it much higher than I have done. Place Beyond the Pines is probably a much better movie than I found it to be, but I can't in good conscience call it the masterpiece that others claim.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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