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In Theaters: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

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THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
(US - 2013)

Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan, Rose Byrne, Harris Yulin, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Emory Cohen, Gabe Fazio. (R, 140 mins)

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance follows up his acclaimed 2010 breakthrough BLUE VALENTINE with THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, a long and engrossing saga of the irreversible ripple effect of decisions, no matter how small, than can change the course of an untold number of lives.  It's an extremely ambitious work and one that confirms Cianfrance as one of America's major filmmakers.  It's not flawless--one gets the feeling in the third act that the film is getting away from Cianfrance a bit with the motivations of one character coming across as a little forced.  But throughout, Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder fashion a genuinely unpredictable story with complex, often tragic characters that are vividly brought to life by a terrific ensemble cast where each actor, even in the smallest role, gets a memorable moment in the spotlight.

Set in Schenectady over a 15-year period beginning in 1997, the film has motorcycle stunt rider Luke Glanton (Cianfrance's BLUE VALENTINE star Ryan Gosling) working in a traveling fair making its annual stop in the city.  He's visited by townie Romina (Eva Mendes) and finds out that her infant son Jason is the result of their brief fling the year before.  Even though Romina is settled down with new boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke impulsively quits his job and decides to stay in Schenectady, befriending low-rent mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) and crashing in a trailer on his property, with the intention of winning over Romina, providing for Jason, and settling down as a family.  When Robin confesses that he used to rob banks, the two team up and pull off several jobs (Luke robs the banks, speeds off on his motorcycle and drives into the back of a moving truck that Robin's acquired).  When Luke shows up at Kofi's house with a new crib and gifts for Jason, tempers flare and Luke violently assaults Kofi.  Robin bails him out and tells him they're done with their criminal side activities, but an enraged Luke carelessly pulls off a solo job.


It's here that the film switches gears and enters its second act with the introduction of ambitious rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a law school graduate whose life becomes inextricably linked with Luke's on the day their paths cross in a police chase.  Married to Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and with an infant son, Cross takes a bullet to the leg that derails his career.  Faced with early retirement due to disability or manning a desk, Cross chooses to remain a cop and is assigned to the evidence room, where he falls in with a band of corrupt cops led by the pushy, manipulative DeLuca (Ray Liotta).  Cross decides to pull a Serpico on his fellow cops, instantly becoming a department pariah but using it to leverage himself a career with the D.A.'s office.
 

The third act takes place 15 years later, as Cross' teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen) comes to live with him in Schenectady after his parents divorce, just as Cross begins his run for the state's Attorney General.  AJ is privileged rich kid but puts on a tough, faux-Long Island act when he's away from his parents.  At his new school, AJ befriends Jason (Dane DeHaan), who's turned into a nice but unhappy loner despite being raised in a loving, stable home with the now-married Romina and Kofi.  It's hard to discuss THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES without giving away major plot points, but needless to say, lives intersect in unforeseen and devastating ways and time and again, one single action or statement carries significant consequences and can alter the course of a life, even years down the road.

Performances are outstanding all-around, from the leads right down to the smaller roles for veterans like Liotta and Harris Yulin, who's superb in his few scenes as Cross' father. Cooper, fresh from his Oscar-nominated turn in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (though PINES, completed in 2011, was shot first), proves again that he's a real actor and probably ready to move on from the HANGOVERs of his career.  Even DeHaan, an actor I've found insufferable in everything I've seen him in up until now (he's best known for the inexplicably acclaimed CHRONICLE), delivers a credible and heartfelt performance as a troubled teenager seeking the secrets of his past and unable to handle the truth when it's revealed. The way Jason acts out could be a sign of that inability or an innate immaturity, but Cianfrance's one major misstep is that this particular plot point is hazy. Cianfrance doesn't spoonfeed details to the audience, assuming instead, unlike many filmmakers, that you can fill in those blanks on your own.  But even taking that into consideration, Jason's motivations need more clarity and unfortunately come off as a shoehorned-in plot necessity rather than an organic development to the story.  It's a minor issue in the big picture, as THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, while not meant to be the raw, gut-wrenching open wound that was BLUE VALENTINE, is still a powerful, emotional, and frequently profound and devastating film, unconventional in its structure and its execution, and while it's perhaps not Cianfrance's masterpiece, it's a strong indication that one isn't very far off.

 
 

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