TIFF 2012: The Place Beyond the Pines

Just a few days in, and TIFF has already screened a spat of critic and movie fan favourites. From grand blockbusters like Looper and Cloud Atlas to human dramas like Argo and The Master, big stars and big directors are already pleasing crowds at the festival. And you might as well add Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, to that list. Met with generally positive response from critics, the film is likely to connect on a gut level with many viewers.

Pines made its world premiere on Friday night, and I entered the press screening early this morning with the unique experience of knowing virtually nothing about the film. And honestly, it’s best to know as little as possible about this film going into it. As such, I’ll be very vague with the plot description. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver. Bradley Cooper plays Avery, a newly minted and overqualified police officer. When Luke gets caught up in some illegal activities, the two inevitably come face to face. Their meeting then sparks a chain reaction of repercussions that affect not only them, but also their family.

At its core, The Place Beyond the Pines is a story about masculinity and the consequences of actions. And Cianfrance evokes the ache of regret beautifully. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty, and like the characters on screen, the audience is held in a constant state of tension. This is not an action-packed movie, yet there is such suspense in every character interaction. A number of figurative threads could be pulled at any time during this film and the lives of the characters would almost instantly unravel.

Cooper perhaps does the best job of conveying this unsettled tone. Much of the latter part of the film deals with Avery’s struggle to come to terms with his past decisions, and Cooper gives an aching, slow-burning performance. His character is wonderfully complex, and Cooper sinks his teeth into every nuance of the role. It’s easily his best performance to date.

Also breaking new ground here is up-and-comer Dane DeHaan. Though DeHaan does not appear until later on in the film, his character quickly becomes a key player, and DeHaan deftly navigates the epic relationship landscape that Cianfrance has constructed by this point. He’s already impressed me this year in Chronicle and Lawless, but now given a meaty dramatic role, DeHaan shines even brighter. He’s given some scenes that easily could have seemed overly laboured or difficult to believe, but DeHaan’s easy naturalness never wavers. He just sinks into the role and inhabits every corner of it.

Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises)gives another fantastic, chameleon-like performance as a man who takes Luke under his wing. His subtle humour is welcome in this heavy film, yet his character also has plenty of demons of his own. Gosling turns in yet another great, emotionally captivating performance, and Eva Mendes is surprisingly good as the woman his character peruses.

One thing that really surprised me about The Place Beyond the Pines was the scope of the film. Cianfrance has experimented with time lapses already in Blue Valentine, but while that film felt suffocating in its intimacy, Pines feels almost grand and epic in its ever-expanding story. And Cianfrance put every minute of the two and a quarter hour runtime to good use. Yes, a couple of story elements feel a bit convenient and/or melodramatic. And yes, I did find the second third of the film to be a little too conventional in its “dirty cop” tropes (though Ray Liotta is great in his very small role). But ultimately, none of that mattered. The Place Beyond the Pines packs an emotional punch the gut. This movie is about the consequences of our actions. And as characters’ past decisions start to affect innocent people, it’s hard not to get engrossed in the injustice and tragedy of it all. Simply put, The Place Beyond the Pines feels poetic without being pretentious. It might not fully satisfy those looking for a bit more violence in their studies in machismo, but the slow-burning drama makes for a far more substantial product.

9/10

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