You’d like to think a piece of really good art could save somebody’s life but I don’t think that’s ever been true. Unlike a bridge or antibiotics art’s merits are subjective. And unlike those things, art’s forms can be tackled with every intent to make money or with complete sincerity. Case in point the songs of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s as opposed to Ke$ha telling children to party like they’re going to die young. Both have their hits and both are musicians, in their ways. Adam West and Daniel Day Lewis are both actors. Anne Geddes and Ansel Adams are both photographers. Stephenie Meyer and Charles Bukowski are both authors.
No matter the kind of art, there will always be a range of what it is meant to be. There are romantic comedies, comedies, horror movies, superhero flicks, indy efforts. Terry Gilliam and Michael Bay make very different movies for very different reasons. We’re coming up on summer and soon we’ll have a whole new slate of blockbusters. Blockbusters are designed to be just lousy with spectacle, and that doesn’t preclude them from being quality films. They are tailored to specific lengths, there is a reason for their existence and there is a formula that they adhere to.
Formulas are well and good. But then there’s The Place Beyond the Pines, which has no formula and is a movie that is sincere and special. It is art not for art’s sake but art in the service of a story. There is no template for a film like this; it is committed to merely that, the strength of its subject. I was surprised to discover this film was not based on a book. It has all the hallmarks of a literary work.
There are three distinct acts to Pines, the first dealing with Luke Glanton (the impeccable Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcycle rider in a carnival who learns that a one night stand in Schenectady has resulted in the birth of his son Jason. Without any reluctance he quits his job with the carnival. He wants to raise his son, unlike his own father. However, the mother of his child, Ro (Eva Mendes), is living with another man, a man who can provide for her well above Glanton’s means. Glanton turns to robbing banks.
The second act of the film revolves around Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young police officer with a child the same age as Jason. He becomes a hero and then embroiled in the dirty dealings of his fellow cops. He, like Glanton, must choose how he will pursue the future.
The third act of the film takes place fifteen years later with the boys of Glanton and Cross grown up and in high school. Neither can escape his father’s legacy.
Legacy is the theme of this film and it is handled with the fine balance of a craftsman’s knife. Not only does the film never talk down to its audience, it is also shot in a flowing style that winds us in to our protagonists, clearly and with no small skill.
The camera is an eye from the very beginning. Two shots still linger in my mind for their absolute precision: The first is the opening tracking shot as we follow Luke Glanton playing with his butterfly knife in rhythmic anticipation. We follow him from behind as a carnival goer might, watching the girls watch him march past, knowing from his shoulders and his stride that he has somewhere to be, something exciting to do. The second is when Ray Liotta’s cop leans down into Bradley Cooper’s window. There is a predatory menace to the movement, a disbelief in his eyes and a slow emergence of his face. This is a film whose camera, music, location, actors and story all interweave with human gestures.
Its sum equals its parts, and that is the real triumph of The Place Beyond the Pines. The transitions of protagonists is never jarring because the story being told is bigger than any one character. It is the individual lives that we are privy to that make this bigger story different. If we knew the personal histories of every human being we came across in our daily lives the world would be a different place. But we are all strangers to each other, whose choices affect each other, whose legacies pass down to our children. And what can seem like fate is really a cycle.
Every son in this film is his father’s son, and The Place Beyond the Pines shows us why. It is an excellent film that manages to be both thoughtful and gripping and as I write this the thoughts it has conjured grip me still.
You’d like to think a piece of really good art could save somebody’s life, an impossible proposition. But good art is certainly worth the ticket price.
The Place Beyond the Pines* (2013)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
*Fun Fact: Schenectady is the Mohawk word for “the place beyond the pine plains.”
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