Tuesday, April 30, 2013
To the Pines and Beyond
Towards the end of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, I wasn't sure whether it was boldly sincere familial drama or just a complete disaster. It certainly seemed like it was trying to make a comprehensive albeit slightly muddled statement on the nature of legacy and inheritance, the seeds of corruption we sow and the bitter fruit our progeny reap. By the time the credits began to roll and Bon Iver chimed over the soundtrack, however, I knew that for all the films specious earnestness, it couldn't help but deflate itself entirely through willful narrative excess. As I was walking out of the theater, it honestly felt like a disaster, like Cianfrance had taken a promising and wholly compelling first third of an exciting crime film and turned into one of the most overwrought pieces of filmmaking since Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE. I kept mulling over in my head - how could Cianfrance, a talented and seemingly shrewd filmmaker, start the film so terrifically and then overplot it to the point of pure exhaustion and frustration? What was he thinking? How did no one, at any point during the production of this film, take a look at the script and realize that it suffered from a hazardous case of narrative overkill? As a story, it runs around so much to the point that it loses direction, and it even refuses to acknowledge its own advice: it so desperately wants to ride like lightning but boy does it crash like thunder.
If I sound like I'm being harsh on this film, it's only because I respected Cianfrance's muted, naturalistic work on BLUE VALENTINE and found the first hour or so of PINES to be exquisite. The first act of the film, following Gosling's troubled motorcycle bandit-come-newfound dad, is captivating in the way that made BLUE VALENTINE also seem raw and vital. It's emotionally and forcefully told, while also seeming generous and sincere. I sympathized so strongly with Luke Glanton's plight to the point that when he was torn off screen, I almost didn't care where they would take the film from thereon. It's certainly an audacious move to kill off your film's star and central protagonist less than halfway through your run time. I give Cianfrance mild credit for choosing to be so bold, but I can't give him much more credit than that because I don't think it's a choice that ultimately pays off. Perhaps because I enjoy Gosling's charisma as an actor and find Bradley Cooper duller than a box factory (a little SIMPSONS, anyone?) I am slightly biased in thinking that the film looses a giant heft of steam once Cooper takes over the leading man role. It certainly doesn't help. But, I truly believe that the compelling arc of this narrative does not belong in Cooper's characters hands nor especially in the hands of their children's characters. Once the children appear on screen together, the overwhelming sense of gimmicky, utterly contrived plotting sets in, and it only gets worse from there. I've heard Paul Haggis' CRASH thrown around in describing the last third of PINES, and I can't say that it is a far-off-the-mark insult. By the end of it all, PINES frustratingly feels like a contrived piece of generational melodrama, forcing its own sense of importance on us and itself through a brazenly, exasperatingly predetermined outcome.
PINES is overwritten, overlong, and overstuffed to the point that it feels bloated and saggy like sallow flesh. The fact that it is nearly the same length as both THE TURIN HORSE and BEYOND THE HILLS and fits more plot into 15 minutes than either of those films throughout their entire run times, yet feels as if it is ten times longer than either one, is a pretty vicious sign of overreach. As you all know, I have no problem with excessive run times or long, ponderous films as long as I know there is a purpose to it (BEYOND THE HILLS is long and deliberate but it builds tension, character, and tone beautifully through its careful use of time and space). What I do have a problem with is films that are long because they've been stuffed with too many climaxes, arcs, and plot shifts without enough sense of character motivation to justify our emotional investment in their constant fluctuations. For instance, in PINES we are given no real sense of who Luke Glanton's son is or what he wants the way we knew what drove Luke so vehemently. Towards the end of the film, there is a gorgeous overhead shot of the son riding his bike like his father through the tall trees and it feels like an ideal time to fade to black, leaving us with the idea that the son is searching for a connection to his past but still riding free because of the family he has around to support him. Instead, we get a half hour more of obvious or insanely contrived character parallels that seem undercooked and forced without any insightful ideas or thematic purpose. Someone should have warned Cianfrance early on in the process of making this film that sometimes less can certainly be more.