Ramifications are a consequence of almost any choice we make in life, but how long do the ripples reverberate? According to 'The Place Beyond the Pines,' the newest drama from director Derek Cianfrance ('Blue Valentine'), the answer is, possibly, forever. The story of two men whose paths cross for only a split second, but whose legacies will powerfully intersect years later, shows how character and impulse can shape generations and alter the trajectories of many lives. Though methodical and measured, the film teeters on a taut thread that always seems on the verge of snapping, and also transmits an agonizing sense of foreboding, especially during the riveting third act.
Yes, third act. While inherently cinematic, 'The Place Beyond the Pines' is cleverly structured like a stage play. Cianfrance, who co-wrote the script with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, divides his tale into a trio of distinct sections, each of which puts different characters under a microscope. At first, we're immersed in one life, then another crashes into that person's orbit, and like a tag team, we next follow the intruder's arc, which is shaped and influenced by the collision. Each story seems to possess a beginning, middle, and end, but after a while, it's clear human existence is a continuum; a spirit may lie dormant for years and then suddenly begin to resonate, while it may take an equal amount of time for the effects of a devastating action to be fully absorbed. It's a marvelous and complex method of storytelling, and Cianfrance flawlessly pulls it off.
"If you ride like lightning, you're gonna crash like thunder" is an oft-repeated line from the film, and it fits the desperate personality of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) like a glove. A nomadic motorcycle stunt driver who tours with a traveling carnival, Luke at last finds purpose and meaning when he returns to the blue-collar town of Schenectady, New York and learns a one-night stand he had with an attractive Hispanic waitress the previous year produced a son. Even though Romina (Eva Mendes) is now settled with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), a new (and devoted) boyfriend, Luke wants to be a part of his child's life and support him financially. He quits his job and finds work at an auto repair shop, but his dead-end existence precludes him from contributing to the extent he would like, so he and his boss, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a former bank robber, hatch a plan to knock off several local bank branches and split the proceeds. The heists go off without a hitch and Luke begins buying his son such necessities as a crib, but after a violent altercation with Kofi and falling out with Robin, Luke becomes desperate and sloppy. His one attempt at robbing a bank solo goes terribly wrong and he's pursued by the local police force. The officer who finally corners him is Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and when the two men confront each other, it severely impacts not only their own lives, but also the lives of those closest to them.
Revealing any more would dilute the power of this affecting piece that deftly juggles suspense, interpersonal drama, and strong messages about the human condition. Though far removed from each other in socio-economic status, Luke and Avery lead parallel lives. Yet one is selfless and the other self-serving, and as the finer aspects of their souls come to light, the film's sense of gravitas deepens. The issue of corruption also plays a major role, but 'The Place Beyond the Pines' is not a morality tale; it's a searing portrait of personal damage and its inescapable and contagious nature. Almost every character in the film has serious faults; some are understandable and forgivable, others are not. All, however, drive the story and lend it meaning.
Cianfrance's style is both bold and delicate. He knows when to take us to the edge and when to hold us back. And so do his actors. Once again, Gosling completely immerses himself in his role, crafting an utterly believable portrayal of a man desperately striving for connection. His warmth, anger, frustration, and longing are all subtly realized and lay the groundwork for the film as a whole. Cooper is equally impressive. 'Pines' was shot before 'Silver Linings Playbook,' and the rigors of this project undoubtedly prepped him well for that breakthrough movie, allowing him to spread his wings in a challenging, nuanced role. Though his ambiguous character isn't always likeable, Cooper doesn't sugarcoat him, yet still manages to garner empathy and understanding. It's a tough tightrope to walk, but he doesn't lose his footing.
Pacing, however, is one of the film's few problems. The story, much like a richly textured novel, unfolds in a leisurely fashion, and it takes a while to get into it. Yet while it's easy to believe some judicious cutting might improve the movie, it also would rob it of some of its most affecting and revealing moments, which can't be fully appreciated or digested during the initial viewing. The script's structure demands breathing room for character development, and in the end, that's what sets this thoughtful film apart.
Laced with Cianfrance's trademark grit and an underlying tenderness, 'The Place Beyond the Pines' is a quietly rewarding cinematic experience and one of the best dramas of the year so far. It's not perfect, but the things in life with the most meaning rarely are.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Place Beyond the Pines' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A 50GB dual-layer disc, standard-def DVD, and instructions on how to download the Ultraviolet Digital Copy are tucked inside. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and the only audio option is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, a preview for 'Closed Circuit' and teasers for 'The Host,' 'Fast & Furious 6,' and 'Admission' immediately pop up, followed by the full-motion menu with music.
Natural and muted is the best way to describe the photographic style of 'The Place Beyond the Pines,' and Universal's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer honors the film's original look with a solid, faithful rendering. A faint bit of grain adds a gritty accent to this intimate, interpersonal tale, but fine contrast and excellent clarity provide the punch we crave. No blemishes of any kind mar the pristine source material, and no incidents of noise, banding, or halos creep into the picture. A couple of scenes look a shade soft, but when dealing with natural light, such variances in texture are expected.
The color palette is rich, but not overtly so, with the verdant hues of the Upstate New York foliage exuding appropriate lushness. Gosling's bleached hair also sports some vibrancy and a splash or two of red lights up the frame on occasion, but Cianfrance and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt favor a desaturated look, which suits the story's somber nature. Black levels are deep, yet crush only occurs in the darkest settings, and fleshtones appear stable and true throughout.
Close-ups exhibit plenty of crisp facial detail and background elements are equally easy to discern. Best of all, no digital doctoring has been applied to this straightforward, mean and clean effort that will surely please both casual and discriminating viewers.
There aren't many audio fireworks in 'The Place Beyond the Pines,' but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track handles the various highs and lows well, pumping out clean, well-modulated sound that seamlessly complements the on-screen action. The surrounds are subtly employed, mostly for ambient effects, but they provide necessary fullness, expanding the audio field just enough to immerse us more completely in the drama. Accents like gunfire, the revving of a motorcycle engine, and fists pummeling flesh are powerfully distinct, while nuances like the crunching of dry leaves and footsteps on creaky stairs achieve an equal degree of presence.
A wide dynamic scale allows highs free reign and keeps distortion at bay, while low-end tones possess appropriate warmth and weight. Dialogue, even when spoken in hushed tones, is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and the often foreboding music of Mike Patton nicely fills the room. All in all, this is a solid track that fulfills its obligations without any unnecessary flash, and wisely stays out of the way of a good story.
Just a couple of extras are tacked on to this release, the best of which is the audio commentary.
Few films are as exquisitely constructed and meticulously executed as 'The Place Beyond the Pines,' and though director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance's multi-layered story at times sputters and stalls, the memorable characters and potent themes carry it through. Balancing a searing directness with an understated presentation, Cianfrance weaves an intricate fabric, and produces a literate, thought-provoking work that plays even better on a second viewing. Excellent performances from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, and a sterling supporting cast enhance the drama and drive home messages that resonate long after the movie ends. Universal's Blu-ray package features strong video and audio, but supplements are skimpy for such a substantial piece of work. Though it may not be everyone's cup of tea, 'The Place Beyond the Pines' is a substantive motion picture that respects its audience and strives to make a meaningful statement. And for the most part, it succeeds. Recommended.