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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “The Place Beyond the Pines”

When I was on vacation in Alabama, I kept seeing TV advertisements for “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

“If you want to know what Schenectady looks like, that’s the movie to see,” I told my friends. I hadn’t seen “Pines” yet, but everything I’d seen and read indicated that it captured the look and feel of the city, that it was set in a real place that would be immediately recognizable to the people who live here.

I made a special trip to the Bow Tie on Sunday to watch “Pines” with Schenectady friends, because watching the film in the city where it was filmed seemed like the right thing to do. And I’m glad I did it. It was a kick to see local landmarks such as the Altamont Fairgrounds, Union College (the alma mater of one of my viewing companions) and the Route 7 Diner on the big screen. If you’ve ever wanted to see a motorcyle/police car chase through Vale Cemetery, well, this is your film. For me, a longtime dream of seeing the newspaper I work for represented in a Hollywood movie has now been fulfilled.

Let’s be honest: I would have enjoyed “The Place Beyond the Pines” even if it was a terrible film. But it’s not a terrible film at all. In fact, “Pines” is quite good — a stirring, epic tale of fathers and sons, familial responsibility and the inescapability of the past.

The film is ambitious, and there were a number of developments I found fairly implausible. But “Pines’” scope is wide, and the film ultimately taps into greater truths, despite periodically threatening to drown in a sea of heavy-handed cliches about masculinity and fate. What distinguishes the film are its fine performances and director Derek Cianfrance’s knack for finding the raw emotion at the heart of every scene, as well as his knack for stunning visuals — he is a master of color and motion, imbuing each frame with a sort of gritty impressionism. The film is quite beautiful, in a downtrodden, working class kind of way.

Anyway, the story. “Pines” has an unusual three-act structure: The film starts off telling the story of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcyle rider with a traveling carnival who is shocked to learn that he has fathered a son with Schenectady waitress Romina (Eva Mendes). It then switches focus to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious cop who shoots and kills Luke, who has turned to robbing banks to support his baby boy, and is faced with the decision of whether to rat out the corrupt cops in the local police department. (This middle section feels like the work of someone who grew up reading articles about corruption in the Schenectady Police Department; screenwriter Ben Coccio is a Niskayuna High School graduate.) The film’s final section jumps 15 years into the future, and follows the troubled lives of the high school sons of Luke and Avery, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen).

The film’s three-act structure has been criticized, with many arguing that the film is most interesting in the beginning, and gradually loses steam after Luke Glanton is killed. I don’t completely agree with this. I’ll admit that the structure is a bit unwieldy, and that the first section is probably the most interesting, but I wish more filmmakers were as bold as Cianfrance, who takes a huge risk in killing off a major character and showing how his death impacts the living, as well as the next generation.

The section “Pines” that focuses on the sons is widely regarded as the film’s weakest, but I actually enjoyed it, even though it hinges on an unlikely (though not impossible) coincidence: that Jason and AJ meet during their senior year in high school and become friends, unaware of the grim connection between their fathers.

As I watched this section, I found myself considering a whole range of questions that a lesser film might have avoided: How do the legacies of parents influence their children? How does guilt alter behavior? I wouldn’t necessarily say I always agreed with Cianfrance’s answers: For instance, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Jason SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! would fly off the rails after learning the truth about his father. For one thing, he seemed like a pretty bright kid. For another thing, he did have the benefit of two parents and a loving home growing up. However, I could believe that he would use his newfound knowledge as an opportunity to learn more about himself, buy a motorcycle, travel. And the film’s final image, of Jason buying a bike and riding away, is really quite lovely, and nicely ambiguous. Is he following in his father’s doomed footsteps? Or embarking on a journey of self-discovery that will eventually lead him home?

Watching “Pines” I was intrigued by how moments I found somewhat implausible were often followed by moments I found truthful and honest. This dynamic is present throughout the entire film. For instance, in the film’s opening scenes we see Romina visit Luke at the fairgrounds. She accepts a ride home from him, but doesn’t tell him he fathered her son. Why, my friends and I wondered after the movie, did she go to see Luke at the fairgrounds, if she didn’t intend to invite him into her life? We discussed various possibilities, but never came to a consensus, though we all agreed that the film’s female characters are not as well developed as its male characters. In the end, I decided I didn’t really care why Romina showed up that night, because her appearance sets the narrative in motion, and the story, overall, is a good one.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is not a great film, but it has moments of greatness. It’s the sort of film that you feel like praising despite its flaws, because it does so many things well. And because it tries things other films don’t have the guts to try. Cianfrance wowed many people (including me) with his 2010 feel-bad film “Blue Valentine,” which depicted both the start and end of a relationship by jumping back and forth in time. (Like “Pines,” “Blue Valentine” played around with chronology in intriguing and memorable ways.) “The Place Beyond the Pines” shows that he’s a director worth watching. Hopefully his next project will be just as interesting as this one.

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