Thursday, April 11, 2013


There is a tendency when assessing the value of something to confuse the amount of effort involved in trying to accomplish something with the actual results.  The old adage of "the journey is better than the destination" is a great motto to live ones' life by, but it also implies that eventually one will - at some point - arrive at some kind of conclusion.  Just imagine how frustrating it would be to journey to nowhere.

Director Derek Cianfrance's (Blue Valentine) newest film, The Place Behind the Pines, might be the cinematic equivalent of this destination-less journey.  It is clear that Cianfrance has a lot to say with his new film but never figures out exactly what.  It is a modern, dramatic epic, the likes of which are rarely seen.  The Place Behind the Pines is stuffed full of ideas, beautiful cinematography, film trickery, and compelling performances and yet this reckless ambition never solidifies into one coherent point.

The Place Behind the Pines is a triptych structurally: three stories that follow Luke (Ryan Gosling) a traveling circus motorcyclist, a morally righteous cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper), and their kids Jason and AJ (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen).  It is a film about forgiveness, dreams, morality, and sins, specifically how they tumble down from one generation to another.  That's not to mention that it is also a film about bank-heists, bullying drama, and police corruption.  There is enough content here for three films and as the subplots pile up the film seems like it is spinning in circles.

Perhaps this cyclical feeling was Cianfrance's intent, as evidenced by the opening 3-minute shot of the film.  In this brilliant and technically masterful image, the audience is introduced to a faceless carny, Luke, as he walks from his trailer to perform for the circus.  All the audience is allowed to see of Luke is Ryan Gosling's platinum-blonde, dyed hair and tattoo-covered, statuesque body.  He is a man of myth and mystery, a traveller of the world worthy of photographing, which the attendants of the show hastily attempt to do, as if he was a Bigfoot creature.

The shot ends with Luke mounting his motorcycle and entering into a caged globe for a death defying game of dodge with two other cyclists.  Their spinning is equally impressive as it is hypnotic.  Cianfrance might be commenting on the cyclical nature of life and the steel trap that keeps it locked in this continual spiral.  If so, congratulations should go to him for the film's ambitious opening and often stunning set-pieces.

The problem is that in order to get there, Cianfrance has his characters often act completely out of character only to further the plot.  When Luke wants to provide for his young son, a result of a fling with Romina (Eva Mendes), he quickly resorts to robbing banks.  There is no set-up for this kind of behavior or real urgency for why such dramatic action needs to be taken, other than out of Luke's own desire to assert power as his son's father.  This kind of plot-focused storytelling creates several moments of dramatic crises that seem completely unattached to anything else that came before.

All of these plotlines introduce interesting moral questions that are often left to dangle without an answer or sense of resolution.  So superficially, there is a lot to recommend about the complexity and technical bravado of The Place Beyond the Pines but by the time audiences reach its "15 Years Later", a moment that comes in the last 45 minutes of the film, all the questions and moral pontificating has long since grown stale.  The Place Beyond the Pines is a big, sprawling, and yet dumb film masquerading as "A FILM!"

Take away the film's big-name leads, stunning cinematography, unique location, and enthralling set-pieces and what is left is a coincidence driven story that asks questions that are smarter than the film can answer.  However, that's a lot of elements to overlook from a film this ambitious and knowingly epic.  More than anything else, The Place Beyond the Pines, will leave audiences hungry for Cianfrance's next film; one that is hopefully just a single film with an end to the journey clearly in sight.

2.5 / 4 Reels



  1. Unlike To The Wonder or Upstream Color audacious complexity is not always a sure thing.

    1. Have you seen either of those films? I'm curious what you think about all of these movies but fear that you take your cues from Brian and little too much. Not that he isn't brilliant, I just want to know what Ric thinks after he sees the movies.

  2. This film looks outstanding! Other critics disagree. I think if you read this after one year Dan, you will realize you were way too harsh on it. I will see it soon and predict will love it!!!

    1. SON OF SPEED RACER, thanks for reading the blog. I hope you enjoyed the review. I don't read other critic's work before I write my reviews so I can't really say that I know or care much what they say until I put mine out. I know this film has lavished praise from a number of people, and I totally expect it to. I predicted to love this film as well and there is a lot to love here. However, I don't and I would encourage you not to judge a film before seeing it. If you do see it and feel differently or the same, I would love to hear what you think.