James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Review (Theatrical): THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

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Derek Cinefrance’s gloomy relationship mopefest Blue Valentine (2011), while not a terrifically uplifting sit, nonetheless showed great promise in the filmmaker’s patience and willingness to let depth of character drive the narrative of his film. Cinefrance’s sensational and moving new offering The Place Beyond the Pines, currently in theatrical release, not only builds on the potential shown in the filmmaker’s prior work, but expands on the intense character– and emotion–driven narrative payoff of the earlier film in a manner that demonstrates an increasingly sure and impressive storytelling hand at work.

In the (presumably) late 80s downmarket environs of Schenectady, NY, which here seems removed only by the accents from an impoverished and undereducated southern small town locale as is found in my fictional Edgewater County, SC, a tatted, motorcycle-riding carny, Luke (Ryan Gosling, intense and opaque—what a shock!), passes through on the yearly circuit, doing his stunt-riding bit and patiently signing autographs for little kids.

Luke’s a cipher, one we see mostly following behind the back of his dyed head. It’s all shot with a grainy, almost 16mm quality, and much is conveyed through evocative image rather than expository dialogue. From the first frames of Gosling’s hunched shoulders sloughing through the rides and games of chance at the county fair-style carnival, it’s a beautiful opening sequence that sets the tone for the story to come. Cinefrance had me.

When Luke encounters the Girl from Last Year, Romina, a pensive beauty played by Eva Mendes, however, he’s shocked out of his typically Gosling-esque mild torpor by news, and a new purpose in life: a son has been produced from the prior year’s assignation. She’s got a new man taking good care of her, but the by-implication heretofore rootless Luke feels compelled to stay and contribute to his son’s life.

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Structured into three compelling sections like movements of a storytelling symphony, first we follow Luke’s misguided attempt to provide for his son by robbing banks alongside impoverished auto mechanic Robin, the excellent and ubiquitous Ben Mendelsohn; the journey of an ambitious and conscience-ridden cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper, also excellent and heartfelt and real) who also has an infant son, and who puts a stop to Luke’s crime spree, in the process becoming a media hero who later furthers his career by exposing corruption in the police department (phew); and finally, fifteen years later, their two sons, AJ and Jason (Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan), friends going down treacherous roads more akin to Luke’s criminal path than Avery’s journey to local political power, which is ongoing, and greatly impacted by the relationship between the troubled boys.

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Most reviews have called this rich-with-verisimilitude character piece ‘novelistic,’ but that’s a bit of a misnomer: No movie, not even one as well done as The Place Beyond the Pines, can go places a novel can, but here you will find interesting characters interacting in patient, complex, and conflicted ways to produce insight into the human condition, which is what any effective and compelling story, whatever the platform, is supposed to bring to the reader or viewer. In that sense, I suppose TPBTP is novelistic after all, but to me it was simply one of the most rewarding movie dramas I’ve seen in quite some time. High recommendation.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

2 Replies

  1. Nothing against the cast at all, it’s just that I found myself getting less and less engaged with the story as it went along. Nice review James.

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