Homegrown feature The Place Beyond the Pines expanded wide today, now showing on 1,542 screens. While major studio films generally open wide above 2,000, Pines has been slowly working its way into the mainstream.
Something of a Greek tragedy with decisions and consequences paralleling over generations, Pines is a delicate pas-de-deux between a crime drama and a straight laced family drama – a compulsively engaging double-helix between anti-hero character study, meta-ethical contemplation, and coming of age allegory. It’s as long as a Russian novel, and twice as sunny. The Place Beyond the Pines is it’s own sort of New York Gothic – a pulpy, expansive, emotionally weighty beast of a film.
Pines distributor Focus Features was no doubt unsure what to do with it (they call the film “daring”). Perhaps most wisely, they’ve put Pines on a slow roll-out, like Bridesmaids or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Because of the subject matter, distributors can’t tell if these sorts of films will be crowd pleasers, sleeper hits – or duds. Rather than block out 4000 screens and commit millions to marketing on a fascinating but confounding prospect, they test. If all goes well, they expand. Pines has gone from 4, to 30, to 514 screens, and has built strong word of mouth along the way, which further builds momentum to the next expansion. This past weekend, Pines ranked 10th in North American box office receipts, with just those 514 screens. On Monday, still at 514, it moved up to 8th and has stayed there all week. This is exceptional for a smaller budget film, and bodes well for today’s wide release.
UPDATE: Indications are Pines interest is still going strong. On Saturday, April 20th, the film sold out it’s 7:25pm showing at the Clifton Park Regal RPX.
Pines has so much going for it, it’s hard to know where to begin. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper star, and the film’s Facebook page has become a mosh pit of twitterpated fandom. As Gina Walsh writes,
“OMG RYAN GOSLING AND BRADLEY COOPER IN THE SAME MOVIE… THAT IS AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF MANLY SEXINESS Ã¢â„¢Â¥ April 10 at 6:27am,”
while Johan Paulson, all the way over in Stockholm, adds,
“One of the best movies ever!…brilliant! April 11 at 4:11pm.”
The film benefits greatly from writer Ben Coccio, a local who knows intimately the locations and topical lore which pepper the film. Derek Cianfrance directs, after helming universally acclaimed Goslin drama Blue Valentine.
Even the soundtrack emulates the film’s ambition, having been scored by the gifted Mike Patton. Does that name ring a bell? It should…
Yep. Mr. Bungle’s vocalist composed an ethereal, often synthesized, largely melancholic aural experience which perfectly matches the tone of the film. The most recognizable selection would be The Snow Angel, a somber, slightly disoriented piece featuring hanging piano notes punctuating silence, with occasional, unexpected crashes of minor chords. The version used during the movie is even more isolated and somber than the sample on Amazon.com, and it’s as close to grief as a song could possibly be. Each note seems as a tear or tremorous weeping, with the chords like moments of choking, overwhelming grief.
Like a Southern Gothic, Pines explores heavy social issues. Family obligations and yearning, economic disparity, police corruption, the cost of political ambition, urban blight, and disaffected youth suffering under out of touch or absent parents, all of these issues are covered. Visually provoking, the City of Schenectady is prominently featured throughout the film. Pines features Schenectady as it’s own multidimensional character, and no doubt Ben Coccio’s local origin helped to focus and refine the social issues portrayed, with their close to the bone real life poignancy.
These portrayals begin with Ryan Gosling’s character, Luke, who opens the film as his nomadic carny motorcycle stunt-rider’s life detours into a somewhat permanent Schenectady residence upon learning he fathered a child during his previous sojourn through town. Wordy, right? Need to stop for a moment and catch your breath? And this is just the opening five minutes…
Schenectady Premiere, click here.
Luke’s life is upended, but he feels a sense of purpose. He wants to provide, but leaving the carnival leaves him without much in the way of life skills. He meets up with a mechanic, Robin, played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn’s performance is the least naturalistic, making Robin nearly a caricature. With juicy, over the top dialogue and in tempting our hero with daring, unscrupulous solutions to his dilemma, Robin is our Gothic’s jester. Luke gives in to the allure of a quick fix, and just as fast as it seems he’s won the girl, this same choice detours his world again, this time onto a collision course with tragedy, by way of police office Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).
The middle story begins as Luke and Avery meet, and we detour again, this time into Avery’s life. Luke and Avery are very much alike. Both are morally ambiguous, somewhat adrift, yet both want to be good, and to do right for the people they care about. Both are strong in one dimension and equally weak in another. Avery, confronted with police corruption, must sacrifice a bit of himself to deal with the situation. As the Hamlet in this film, he finds himself paralyzed with ambivalence, and calls upon his father for guidance, who prods him to action he “isn’t going to like.” The ethical issues during Avery’s story aren’t as intensely gripping as Luke’s family issues, but the pulpy cop drama is gritty and unsettling.
Ray Liotta plays the bad cop, Deluca, and couldn’t be more aptly cast. Liotta has so much experience in these types of roles a cool, sociopathic ennui hangs over him as effortlessly as morning mist over a still pond.
Yes, there are love interests in the story, but this is New York. With 300 years of puritanical New England sensibilities, hard work and industry are a good man’s only true happiness. So as providers, Luke and Avery see their sons as pure beyond reproach, and worth sacrificing everything for.
Their sons, AJ and Jason, are our Gothic’s vestal virgins, and the third act, if we can call it that, tells the story of these disaffected youth. Their values and outlook are partly defined by their environment, their families, and that family history that’s unknown to them. Schenectady is an economically depressed post-industrial urban wasteland for Jason (Luke’s son), but he grows up with a loving mother and step-father. For AJ (Avery’s son), the city is an abundance of suburban affluence and unsupervised indulgence, but his home life is broken and sterile. Jason is getting along alright, but plot necessitates they find each other, and so AJ transfers into school and finds Jason scowling as loners do. Both, lacking direction, turn to the usual teenage past times and efforts to define themselves. It’s a bit difficult to take the characters seriously. AJ has adopted an unearned patois, and Jason is much too antisocial without cause. This becomes more palatable, as we remember that in trying to define and embrace our individuality, teenagers tend to act in exaggerated, sometimes comical ways.
This third act might be the most poetic and mythical of the three stories, at least in that all the events prior now converge in the lives of the teens. We, the viewers, know all the weight and import hanging over their lives, and are all too aware, each delicate, unavoidable step of the way, where their choices are fated to lead them. Unfortunately this part of the story proves the most difficult situation wherein all our themes could sympathetically coalesce. This isn’t the director’s or writer’s fault, but the nature of the movie going public and our culture. Bluntly, in today’s American culture, teenagers are annoying, amoral, and irresponsible twits. The movie going public has some difficulty caring about their concerns, or even taking them seriously. Alternatively, this could make the third act more compelling for younger audiences. For adults, we accept Romeo and Juliet as the height of Shakespearian tragedy. Now think of a few 15 year olds you know. Big difference. As for this film, all the events prior come to a head, the children’s lives echo past events and everyone’s future is put at risk. The resolution, without giving it away, takes a bumpy path that doesn’t ring entirely natural as it plays out, but settles down into something we can accept in a mythical, poetic way.
Cianfrance’s directing technique deserves copious attention. He tells the story using an ethereal third person point of view. While events are thankfully told chronologically, scenes and events don’t have traditionally polished start and end points. The camera drops us into a scene or moment in a person’s life almost accidentally, and might stay for weeks, or leave after minutes. Considering how long the film becomes, it’s a strange yet refreshing economy, and with an almost obvious logic. The camera takes us in and out of the lives of each character only where turning points occur. The camera works like a memory. It’s not about framing a scene, but traveling the sequence of related moments.
Cianfrance deserves credit for other decisions as well, and knowing the locations where the film is set give local viewers a behind the scenes perspective. Everything seems more important, more powerful, in the film than these locations offer in real life. This perspective makes understanding the creation of myths a more tangible process. That, along with the over important stakes of seeking ADA appointment in Schenectady, which isn’t nearly as real world impressive as the film portrays. The film makes it easy for a Schenectadian to understand the devices directors and cinematographers use to do their magic.
Bradley Cooper is solid in his role as Avery. Cianfrance deserves credit for this as well, simply because he relentlessly pursued Cooper to take the role. Cianfrance already mined gold from Gosling in Blue Valentine, and breaks the bank doubling down with him here. His willingness to drop everything and travel hundreds of miles for impromptu meetings to entreat Cooper can only be judged a gifted auteur’s unique perspicacity.
The decision to include countless locals as extras, to retain place and street names, and incorporate real public figures is engaging. And like many European, and in particular, Scandinavian features, such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Drive, Wallender, AMC’s remake and Danish original The Killing, and even the current David Tennant fronted UK drama Broadchurch, Cianfrance lets much of the film progress at a slow, smoldering burn. This allows scenes and emotions to feel natural and uncramped. Too many films today rush through emotionally substantive scenes with an “oh, you know what we mean” brusqueness, in order to jump into the action. Cianfrance seems to believe in creating as much depth in the characters as possible, and importance into their actions, so that when the action does come, and it does, every blistering second pushes viewers deeper into their seats.
One last observation should be devoted to our remaining required Gothic element: horror. Cianfrance uses a technique that might go unnoticed, if not for the fact he’s used it so efficiently, so effectively, and so frequently in this film. Every major character in the film must literally, and symbolically, walk though a door into some uncertain situation. Luke does this from his first scene, and repeatedly thereafter. Each time he does, the stakes are raised, and as viewers knowing where it could lead, we cringe at the prospects. Avery must exit a door from safety and through another into terror in his first appearance on screen. Ray Liotta’s character is introduced at a door, and with him, potential doom is invited in. Few films can claim credit to engendering such a powerful sense of dread, and using such a simple device to do it. If Cianfrance can do this just by filming a closed door, he really might have a future in paranoid thrillers, and I’d bet money he could reinvent horror.
The Place Beyond the Pines is the masterful story-telling of a long, brooding, serious family drama, peppered with bursts of action and moments of gripping suspense, crafted with unique flourishes, and steeped in emotion. A willingness to be immersed in cerebral film-making, and a solid attention span are required. With a budget of only $15 million, director Derek Cianfrance and writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder demonstrate eloquently that excellent film making depends more on talent than deep pockets – though it can help.
To quote Romell Montague’s Facebook post,
“Now THAT’S how you make a film!!” – April 14 at 10:51am.
If you’d like to read about the Schenectady Premiere, click here.
Check back soon for stories of locals who appeared in the film, and interviews with Ben Coccio and Derek Cianfrance.
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