“The Place beyond the Pines” tries to be hilariously epic, almost “Grapes of Wrath” or “Once Upon a Time in America” epic. Funny thing is that the story itself does not have much going for it, and it takes a while to get used to the fact that we are asked to just follow the battle with life, usually regularly boring or exciting, sometimes peaking with drama, of a couple of not too remarkable characters.
The way the script structures this is quite brave: without entering spoiler territory, it manages to bring together the films’s main characters (played by Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper) in a “and then their lives collide” moment: a hopeless crook meets a regular police officer during his escape from a bank robbery. How these lives collide plays out somehow casually, and I am not sure whether I was the only person sitting there at that moment and gasping “really? No shit! Cool!” It’s one of those moments I love in movies, when traditional rules about story and character development are thrown overboard and the author shows you that you have been spoonfed too much Hollywood merchandise for too long, and in consequence you have been expecting the wrong thing for the wrong reasons all along.
It is tricky to execute on that, however. After that pivotal moment, I kept wondering for a rather long time whether they will manage to finish what they started, to make sense of the narrative mess they created, to give meaning to the story. I am still not sure whether they did, but they tried. As the story develops over almost a generation, the elements scattered across the script start to converge, and yes: then there is the moment when I was gasping again (for me, that moment took place in a college cafeteria, but maybe others have done the thinking more quickly…). Is the story tied up too neatly and cleanly? Are there too many arbitrary vectors of life that still happen to convergence in a single spot? I can’t answer that, which means while I am not perfectly convinced that the way the story played out was the best possible way of doing it, I am still quite happy with the result. I did not feel cheated into some make-believe “meeting your fate” moment. Instead, the key “message” (or maybe better: motif) of the movie appears to be that life has a long memory, and will not easily forget the bodies in your closet. There’s no resolution to that realisation – it merely means to be prepared for some surprises along the way, because the past may come back to kick you. And you may not be the only person suffering from past misdeeds (or even only mishaps, as could be said here). Life accumulates memories good and bad, and pays out with interest to you and your family. It’s more dramatic for them maybe, because they never even knew what’s coming for them.
And Eva Mendes looks stunning. She does not get much to do in terms of acting, but boy…