Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lost in the trees

The place beyond the pecs . . . Ryan Gosling in Pines.
It is hard, I admit, for me to argue with Ryan Gosling when he takes his shirt off. As he does immediately in the man-candy opening of The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Gianfrance's damp ode to fathers and sons, the empty spaces between them, and - well - other stuff that's a little hard to parse, but also, I'm sure, very sad.  Argue I must, however, with the accolades accorded Mr. Gosling, even though there are plenty of other shots - in which he merely lets his bleached-blonde locks and deep blue eyes do his acting for him - that left me a little weak in the knees.

My, my, I thought to myself.  What an awesome talent.

Okay, I'm beginning to sound like a gay Gene Siskel (though unlike him, I don't actually review with my you-know-what).  Besides, I do think Gosling's talented, although it's clear he's coasting on his (considerable) physical charisma in Pines, in which he plays a kind of peroxided angel on wheels, who makes a living calmly enacting Wall-o-Death motorbike stunts in a traveling carnival.  That is, until he hooks up again with a one-night stand (a poignantly restrained Eva Mendes) in upstate New York, and realizes that the little boy she's raising must be his own.

This awareness sparks a transformation in his character, "Luke" (I know, I know), who leaves the carny life for a minimum-wage job in Schenectady (which roughly translates as "the place beyond the pines" in Mohawk, in case you're wondering).  Luke only hopes to be near, and hopefully provide for, his young son - so when these frustrated ambitions lead him to drift into robbery and petty crime, well - let's just say his sins are easy to forgive.

So far, I admit, so good; and for a while, The Place Behind the Pines operates as a kind of downer melodrama elevated by reticent naturalism.  The skies are always gray in Schenectady, where hopes are always broken, so we can feel in our bones that this is no world for virtue - and as the script inches forward, the slightly grainy photography begins to seem soggy with tears we haven't shed yet, but know are in the offing.

Indeed, they come halfway through, as Luke is gunned down after a robbery gone wrong by Bradley Cooper (Schenectady is thick with A-list looks, it seems), a young cop on the rise, and possibly on the make.  Cooper's character, however, is racked with guilt over the killing (even though he sustained a wound in the confrontation, as Luke did fire at him); and these emotional screws tighten when "bad cops" on the squad (with Ray Liotta in the lead, naturally) entice him into nabbing a "hero's bonus" by finding and keeping much of the money that Luke stole (touchingly, he hid it within his son's crib).

Not bad, but hardly in Ryan Gosling's league as a screen object.
It's here that Pines lifts off into intriguing thematic complexity, despite a slightly blank and self-conscious performance from Cooper (who's hardly Gosling's equal at relaxing into his screen persona).  We can feel that the moral positions of thief and policeman have overlapped, and when Cooper (left) turns to his father, a retired judge, for help in extricating himself from his entrapment in corruption, we also sense Gianfrance's gestures toward father-son dynamics could be headed for some sort of pay-off.

But no such luck.  To be honest, from the start we can sense the director and his two screenwriters haven't always been connecting the dots of their plot; indeed, the reticence of the film has sometimes barely disguised the fact that we've been quietly hustled from one contrived climax to the next.  And when the film abruptly leaps a generation to sketch in how the sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons, things really fall apart, and we lose track of whatever fateful thread Gianfrance thinks he has been spinning.  It doesn't help that one member of the second generation (the pouty Emory Cohen, a kind of teen-age Bacchus) looks and acts nothing like his putative parents (the wiry Dane DeHaan is more convincing as Gosling's gosling), while a shift in references from the New Testament to Greek tragedy comes off as slightly ridiculous (the kids are portentously named "Jason" and "AJ" - Ajax, perhaps? - and one is from the city of Troy).

Still, most reviewers have showered Pines with honors, and I suppose it's still a cut above most indie fodder. Yet one leaves it more puzzled than anything else - and frustrated by the perception that if Gianfrance had only wrapped his movie about two thirds of the way through, it might have teased us with trailing, unresolved moral questions, and we would have forgiven the various gaps in its logic that only loom in the third act. Oh, well!  To Gianfrance, I suppose such issues hardly matter; judging from his press, he has already been officially designated a rising talent.

Only it seems to me he still has a good way left to rise.

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