The Place Beyond the Pines – A Review

While the rest of America most likely only became aware of the new Ryan Gosling/Bradley Cooper film The Place Beyond the Pines in the last few months, those of us in the Capital Region of New York have been tracking the progress of the movie since it was filmed here in the summer of 2011. This wasn’t our area’s first brush with Hollywood – portions of Salt (Angelina Jolie) and The Other Guys (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) were recently shot in Albany – but it was the first time in a while that an entire film was shot here rather than just a few scenes. Add in the star power associated with the film and it is not an understatement to say that The Place Beyond the Pines was treated like a big freaking deal in these parts. Stalking Gosling, and to a lesser extent Cooper, became something of a pastime for a lot of people; after all, it’s not every day that you run into an A-list celebrity on the streets of Schenectady. My friend’s 2 year old son chattered on about Ryan Gosling for two weeks after his day care watched some of the filming. After almost two years of hearing about the film, it was exciting to finally get a look at the final product when the movie was released last weekend.

Unfortunately, The Place Beyond the Pines fails to live up to all the hullabaloo that its local filming caused. The movie starts out strong with an engrossing first act, but loses that momentum as the movie progresses.  Some stellar performances and beautiful cinematography can’t overcome the shortcomings of the film’s narrative.

The Place Beyond the Pines marks the reteaming of Ryan Gosling and director Derek Cianfrance; the two previously worked together in 2010’s Blue Valentine, an emotionally compelling movie that depicts the dissolution of a marriage (and a film that I found honest and heartbreaking).   In The Place Beyond the Pines, professional stunt motorcycle rider Luke (Gosling) turns to bank robbery to provide for his young family.  Rookie cop Avery (Cooper) tries to navigate a department full of corruption and temptation and prove himself to his politically connected father. When their lives intersect, it sets in motion a series of events that will have a lasting impact.

When Ryan Gosling is on the screen, the movie sizzles. It’s not just Gosling’s charisma, which is sizable, that makes the difference; Luke’s story line is the most developed and the easiest for audiences to become invested in. The film takes the time to create Luke’s world and the people that inhabit it. Luke clearly isn’t making the best decisions, but you understand why he is making these decisions. In Gosling’s capable hands, Luke is more than just a stock punk trying to turn his life around. There is a vulnerability to him that softens his hard edges. I think this is Gosling’s best work since Blue Valentine; he can be sweet and funny and violent and scary in the span of few moments and you can’t take your eyes of him.

Cooper also turns in a fine performance as Avery, but just isn’t given as much to work with. While the film is very methodical in giving us glimpses into who Luke is – for good and for bad – I didn’t think the same attention was given to Avery. I never really got a clear picture of who he was and what motivated him. Cooper makes more of the material that he is given than any actor should be able to, but that still isn’t enough. While Gosling gets the benefit of interacting with interesting characters, Cooper has to make do with acting with clichés – angry dirty cop (Ray Liotta), unhappy wife (Rose Byrne), distant disapproving father (Harris Yulin) and jerky teenager (Emory Cohen). Gosling’s performance and story set the bar at a height that the rest of the film just can’t compete with it, no matter how much Cooper tries in vein.

The third act of the film is by far the weakest; there are clear thematic strings that the director wants to weave through the film, but the last 30 minutes of the film rely far too heavily on coincidence and moments that stretch credulity. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, In Treatment) does some fine work in the final scenes, but the story is so predictable and obvious that his efforts are ultimately wasted. I like what the director and writer were going for, but the execution just didn’t quite work.

Some other thoughts:

  • Let’s just say that the idea of corruption in the Schenectady Police Department isn’t much of a stretch.
  • The Place Beyond the Pines gets a lot of the little details right; look for some brief cameos from local new reporters. It is ironic that this film, which is a work of fiction, is far more accurate than the recent Lifetime film Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story, which was based on the true story of a murder in the area yet got a lot of the details wrong.
  • They never actually explain it in the film, but the name Schenectady roughly means “place beyond the pines” in the Iroquois language.
  • Troy and Schenectady are literally next to each other, so the fact that a character asks another character in Schenectady if he has ever heard of Troy totally deserves the incredulous look it receives. The cities are like 10 minutes apart and no one from the Capital Region hasn’t heard of Troy, Schenectady and Albany.
  • Since I live here, I thought it would be fun to document some of the local places that are featured in The Place Beyond the Pines. So yesterday afternoon, armed with an iced coffee, my cell phone’s GPS and a convenient article from the local paper, I set out on my adventure:
The opening shots of the film were shot at the Altamont fairgrounds. I grew up going to this fair with my grandparents and it is the filming location closest to where I currently live.

The opening moments of the film were shot at the Altamont fairgrounds. I grew up going to this fair with my grandparents and it is the filming location closest to where I currently live.

The Dairy Circus in Scotia is the backdrop for a sweet scene in the film. To get the full experience, I also stopped for an ice cream like they did in the movie. I am a slave to accuracy :-)

The Dairy Circus in Scotia is the backdrop for a sweet scene in the film. To get the full experience, I also stopped for an ice cream like they did in the movie. I am a slave to accuracy 🙂

The 1st National Bank of Scotia on Mohawk Avenue is one of the banks robbed by Gosling in the film.

The 1st National Bank of Scotia on Mohawk Avenue is one of the banks robbed by Gosling in the film.

The Trustco Bank on Brandywine Avenue is immortalized on the poster  for the film.

The Trustco Bank on Brandywine Avenue is immortalized on the poster for the film.

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The Vale Cemetery is the locale for an exciting chase scene in the movie

The Vale Cemetery is the locale for an exciting chase scene in the movie

The Schenectady Police Department, where Anderson Cooper's character worked

The Schenectady Police Department, where Bradley Cooper’s character worked

Schenectady City Hall was used for some interior shots

Schenectady City Hall was used for some interior shots

Eva Mendes' character works at the Route 7 Diner. Mendez apparently secretly worked a few shifts here to get into character.

Eva Mendes’ character works at the Route 7 Diner. Mendes apparently secretly worked a few shifts here to get into character.

My photos of St. John the Evangelist Church were a little dark, so I used the photos from the Church's website. The Church was used for a baptism scene.

My photos of St. John the Evangelist Church were a little dark, so I used the photos from the Church’s website. The Church was used for a baptism scene.

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This was actually a really fun day trip as I got to explore a city that I don’t spend a whole lot of time in, though I did feel a little odd driving around taking pictures of banks. That’s kind of suspicious behavior, but thankfully no one seemed to notice. It also allowed me to stop at a local Schenectady landmark that didn’t make it into the film: Jumpin’ Jacks.

  •  This film is really beautifully shot. I don’t think that it is my hometown bias that makes me say that, especially since the film doesn’t exactly portray Schenectady in the most positive light. There is both a grittiness and picturesque quality to this film that makes it visually quite nice to watch.
  • If you follow celebrity gossip, this is the film where Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes’ alleged romance blossomed.
  • As a Metallica fan, I appreciated that Gosling was wearing a t-shirt for the band’s Ride the Lightning album in many scenes; it fits particularly well since a character will later warn Gosling “If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.”
  • Also a nice callback – a joke is made earlier in the film about being “the best duo since Hall and Oates”  and later their song “Maneater” is featured in a scene. I appreciate that eye for detail.
  • The real mystery is why I never went down to check out the filming of this movie when it was right in my backyard. For someone who loves movies as much as I do, it seems odd and I can’t really explain why I didn’t pop by. My best guess is that a lot of the filming happened during the day when I was at work and it wasn’t always easy to know where they would be filming on any given day. In retrospect, I wish I’d made more of an effort; it would have been a fun experience.

The Place Beyond the Pines is definitely worth seeing for the first part of the movie alone; the rest of the film isn’t bad, but it just can’t live up to the expectations that it sets for itself with Gosling’s fascinating performance and story. When The Place Beyond the Pines is firing on all cylinders, it is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, it runs out of gas too soon and can’t quite carry the lofty themes and interconnected story lines. Locals will get an extra kick out of the familiar sights, but ultimately the film can’t live up to the hype.

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