"The Place Beyond the Pines": True Grit or Truly Gritty, With a Nod to Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

So last night I caught the new Derek Cianfrance film The Place Beyond the Pines in St. Louis, once-great Gateway to the West, though the film should more fittingly be seen at a small cinema in New Paltz, New York, or some such Back East (or Hudson River Valley) locale with lush forests and rundown towns. I’ll refrain from any plot spoilers in what I say here, in part because it’s a knockout. I was impressed. And I’m a hard person to please, have seen dozens of films in the last few months and judged most of them as not worth the time to write a word about. Not this one. This was like a bracing splash of cold water on a face wearied by too many sloppy scenes of bad dialogue and nonsensical or hackneyed plots.
So instead of summing up the film and giving away all the (weird) viewing fun, I’ll offer this: Years ago I had the great fortune to take a graduate course with none other than the luminary playwright Edward Albee. Looking back, it was one of my favorite college courses. Albee told colorful anecdotes, brought in actors to stage scenes for us, and drilled into our young minds the idea that a play (or film, for that matter) should frequently try to surprise the audience, but that the surprise should be earned, should make sense. His quote for that was, “It must be inevitable.” The “it” of that quote is the surprise plot twist, the revelation of the character’s past, the unforeseen event that suddenly changes everything. He does this often in his own plays, and that semester directed a terrific cast in a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For those who know the play, one example of the surprise that must be “inevitable” concerns the story of George and Martha’s fictional son. When the secret is revealed, it upends some of the story that has unfolded to that moment, but makes perfect sense.
So too do several surprises in The Place Beyond the Pines. Ryan Gosling is like a young Marlon Brando in the early motorcycle scenes, but he’s just the early foundation of the film. The opening scene shows one of the those motorcycle stunts in which three different dirt bikes ride at top speed in a spherical steel cage. It’s a mesmerizing scene, and a metaphor for the complexity that follows. Then things shift. You come to think Bradley Cooper is the star of the film, until the story shifts again.
Only once was I able to guess or foresee a surprise plot twist before it occurred, and that particular event was perhaps the biggest reach of the plot (a union of two sons), but can also be defended as fulfilling the film maker’s vision of Fate. The cinematography tends toward the truly gritty, showing most of the actors with “warts and all”—lingering close-ups of their spotty faces (especially the older male actors playing cops or judges, like Ray Liotta), resisting the too-common trait in Hollywood films of making everyone look pretty, and thereby unconvincing. The tangled forests of New York State (which looks just like my sometimes-home-state of Pennsylvania) offer a lush backdrop to the somewhat decrepit feel of the small towns. In a nutshell, I say, Watch it.

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