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‘The Place Beyond the Pines’: a searingly powerful drama

September 13th, 2012

The right thing: that elusive concept that drives so many to compromise their values and make life-shattering choices. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a film that studies that concept and its consequences.

Director/writer Derek Cianfrance seamlessly creates an experience which is not merely an important drama, but a spellbinding piece of art. This is a special kind of drama we rarely see anymore: the kind where we’re watching unpredictable people,  not shoehorned characters.

Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a charismatic motorcycle cage daredevil who learns he has a 1-year-old child with a former flame (the excellent Eva Mendes) and is willing to go to whatever lengths, including violent robberies, to provide for them. Bradley Cooper is Avery Cross, a driven rookie cop who gets in Luke’s path and leads up to a clash of ideals. Dane DeHaan (the best part of “Chronicle”) takes the role of Jason, a troubled and angry teenager who is affected by the choices  made by the other two characters. While this summary may seem trite and genetic, I guarantee you that it only seems so because anything else would impede upon the secret joys this film has to offer.

I was blown away by “The Place Beyond the Pines.” This is a daring drama that never fails to know where it wants to go and why it wants to go there. Every single line, every single character rings with a specific type of authenticity in which we can’t help but become hopelessly invested. Everything works for this movie. The musical score was wowing, the cinematography was ingenious and the writing couldn’t be more ambitious and effective in this multifaceted and profound character study.

Ryan Gosling has already proven himself to be one of the most riveting actors of his generation with “Drive,” and here he’s just as intense and mesmerizing. As Luke Glanton, Gosling finds the subtle nuance of a lonely man who’s willing to commit crimes if it means doing right by his son. His every action is gauged by the desire to do “the right thing.” That loneliness and sadness is always present in Gosling’s eyes, whose greatest strength is perhaps his ability to invoke immediate sympathy.

This is also the richest, most noteworthy Bradley Cooper performance to date. His acting ability has been sorely underused considering the wide range he consistently hits here. It may seem impossible to expect him to co-carry the film with Ryan Gosling and not have  Gosling outshine him, but Cooper went far beyond expectations. This is a performance for which I could easily see the awards season knocking on his door.

Dramas are hard to execute well, and all the more so when they deal with a large time span and multiple characters. “Pines” is ambitious in how it takes on the prospect of juggling three interweaving storylines that overlap over the course of 15 years. Yet it never falters or makes one false step. The three stories interlock in a tapestry of beautiful creative vision that one can’t help but be affected by its touching humanity and tragic realism. “Pines” shows how our sins translate into ripples in the pond of our lives, and also how those ripples affect not only us, but the people who happen to come across us and the people who will be touched by our legacy. Each choice we make, however small, can shape who we are and who our children will be one day. These are characters who can  take the heavy burden of that theme and turn themselves into those scarce actors with whom we connect with them as strongly as we would with real people. We feel, cry, hate and cheer with them. They stick with us.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is a product of fierce and wild observation on humanity, and it proves that it never gets old to revel in a film that has mastery of itself. What makes Derek Cianfrance so consistently fascinating is how he styles himself as a pupil of psychology. “Blue Valentine,” his last film, looked at the relationship spectrum in a raw and brutal way we’d never seen before. His uniqueness as a filmmaker stems in how he doesn’t allow any other aspect of filming to impede upon the integrity of the characters.

As with most great dramas, the characters are key and each scene is so impeccably written and crafted because of that unfaltering focus. We can tell “Pines” is the real deal, because it asks the questions most dramas don’t even know exist.