The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful, heavy, serious, intricate portrait of family. More accurately, it is about fathers and sons. It’s also about crime, justice, corruption, morality and life at both the fringes and the upper echelons of society. It’s about wanting to and trying to do the right thing, but going about it in all the wrong ways. Finally, it’s about reconciling the past and trying to move on, and the beautiful struggle involved in that.
Filles Lindsay and Jenna both saw The Place Beyond the Pines this weekend. Here’s what they had to say on some of the major themes of the movie.
IT’S CALLED ACTING.
Jenna: Derek Cianfrance is reputed to be a very intense director (remember how he made Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams live together for months in preparation for Blue Valentine?), but the payoffs for this intensity are huge. The performances in The Place Beyond the Pines were incredible, really outstanding. The cast was totally perfect. Ryan Gosling was the best I’ve seen him since Blue Valentine. Bradley Cooper was wonderful — I think this may be his best work. The kids, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, were fantastic as well, and deserve a special shout-out.
Lindsay: With Blue Valentine, I think that was a way to develop bonds between the actors to help them prepare for their roles. I actually loved that the actors lived together before they filmed; I thought that was a really neat backstory to the movie. I know the actors filmed home movies as a family and had a birthday party and things like that in preparation for the role, making memories together that they could draw on later during filming. (Fun fact: At least one of those home movies is actually part of a special feature of the DVD.)
I’m not sure what the preparation was like for Pines, but this movie was all about Ray Liotta and Emory Cohen for me! Both were so great to watch. Liotta just has such an intimidating presence. Those eyes! The impromptu dinner scene was a personal favourite —that tension between him and Rose Byrne’s character was great. And I agree that the kids deserve special mention for sure. Amory Cohen played a cocky-yet-charming neglected teenager so well. Everything about him was so large for his age — his muscular stature, his attitude, his confidence — but he had a delicacy when it came to his dad. It was just a really beautifully done character.
I’ve never been much of a Bradley Cooper fan, but I did like him in Silver Linings Playbook, and no doubt he was excellent here. I mean, that scene in the police psychologist’s office was brilliant. The truth hiding behind his stock answers was so subtle and so well done.
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS…
Lindsay: The location in this movie anchored the story. I thought the woods helped to make the story feel timeless, almost like a dark, modern fairy tale. Those scenes of the open road and the bike driving through the woods at twilight, and that unsettling music … it still gives me chills to remember it! The forest was presented as a place of excitement, salvation, discovery and danger. There were a lot of scenes happening in the woods, or near the woods, at a lot of diners and dives on the edge of town. It was like the forest was this envelope around the whole story. And the story unfolded in a way where you would revisit the same locations years later, and you were able to feel a sense of familiarity with some of the places.
When I heard that this movie was a “crime drama” I immediately thought of something like The Godfather, or some type of epic crime drama involving gangs or organized crime, and this story really isn’t about that. There are different levels of crime happening for sure, but it’s a much more personal, more domestic story about small-time crime. I think I was struck by how “small” the story was, in a way, and I think the setting had a lot to do with it.
Jenna: I agree, the woods were a perfect backdrop to this movie. Woods often represent danger and mystery in fiction, and they certainly do that in Pines. I also thought it was really interesting that the whole town seemed to be set on the edge of those woods, as it really drove home the idea of living on the fringes, or maybe more accurately on the edge of that danger and mystery. I love Lindsay’s description of how the woods help make the story seem like a “dark, modern fairy tale.” Fairy tales are at their core morality stories, which is a major theme of Pines.
STRUCTURE: A MOVIE IN THREE ACTS
Jenna: I talked so much earlier in this post about the performances because without these excellent actors, I’m not sure the film would have worked. The story is ambitious, perhaps even epic. The experience of seeing the movie was really thrilling because my expectations were so far off of what was happening on the screen.
The Place Beyond the Pines takes place in three acts. The first focuses on Gosling’s character, the second focuses on Cooper’s, and the third focuses on their two sons. The story’s structure really contributes to the sense of parallelism (we discuss this below) and even circularity, and brings up deep philosophical questions such as, are we more than our collection of genes? Are the people we become entirely shaped by our earliest experiences? Can we redeem ourselves for the wrongs we have done? What does success cost, and is the price worth paying? The echoes of the past that repeat throughout the story are haunting.
Lindsay: The movie was definitely different than what I was expecting too. It was interesting how the film changed protagonists not once, but twice. It’s been done before of course, but still it’s a fresh way to watch a story and I found it kept me on my toes as the story unfolded. It’s funny how attached you can become to a character or storyline and how unsettled you can feel when that frame of reference is torn away from you as a viewer. It particularly works well when a main theme in the story you’re watching is abandonment.
Lindsay: This is certainly a story by men, about men. I went to see this movie with a bunch of friends (4 female, and 2 male) and I feel that it had the biggest effect on the men in our group. One could relate with the absent father theme, and the other with the richness of the male friendships and relationships shown. And while I definitely loved this movie, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat alienated from it because it investigated themes and experiences that were so specifically male.
That said, I appreciate so much that this was a central theme. I would love to see more smart male directors tackling masculinity as a subject.
Jenna: Not to get all gender studies on you, dear readers, but yeah, masculinity is definitely a major theme in this movie. What is masculinity? What is manhood? What is fatherhood? What does it mean to be a son? How do men bond with each other? All of these questions arose for me while watching Pines. And, not to spoil anything, but one of the characters is literally saved when his veneer of masculinity comes crumbling down, and I think, because he was willing to be vulnerable, scared and emotional. It’s a very powerful moment.
Unfortunately though, the only relatively well-developed female character in the film was Eva Mendes’ character, Romina. It’s a shame that this always seems to be the case.
Jenna: There is a lot of parallelism in the movie, as scenes from earlier sections of the movie are repeated in different ways. From a repeated close-up shot on first Gosling’s and then Cooper’s derrieres, to two ominous trips into the woods taken by Cooper’s character at two very different times in his life, to the exact same shot taken from the exact same angle of Luke (Gosling) on his motorcycle and Jason (DeHaan) on his bicycle riding down a long, gently curving stretch of road cutting through breathtaking forest scenery, Cianfrance does a beautiful job of telling this story using visual cues rather than (or in addition to) dialogue. Perhaps this cue is taken from the character of Luke himself, who isn’t particularly articulate but has moments of beautiful eloquence nonetheless.
Lindsay: I actually found this part could have been scaled back a bit. Sometimes the parallels came a little too fast and furious, but I appreciated why they were being used. That said, I also loved the bicycle shot with Jason, and really wanted to know where he’d find himself after his ride at the end of the story came to a close.
Jenna: The movie is heavy, no question. It is also beautiful, and unlike any movie I have seen in a long time. Its unusual combination of form and content makes it a very interesting, if unexpected, movie to watch. See it, you won’t be sorry. (Added bonus: female and gay male Gosling fans won’t be disappointed by the opening sequence.)
Lindsay: Derek Cianfrance is an wonderful emerging director. I think he has a real gift when showing us relationships, in particular the ones that fall apart despite the best of intentions. Definitely recommended for people who aren’t adverse to something heavy (and long!) that deals with the choices fathers make, and the consequences sons face.