The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 26, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Place Beyond Pines' challenges, rewards viewers

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently regarding the patience and tolerance of the modern moviegoer.

His particular rule is that he will give a movie 15 minutes to gain his interest, and if it fails in that time he will turn off the film. I've argued that this is unfair to the movie; that the pacing of films has changed from era to era. Would a film such as "Pulp Fiction," with its Mobius-strip storytelling, or "Memento," with its reverse narrative, be as widely accepted today by the casual film watcher? With some, yes, but I question whether they would reach as broad of an audience now. The movie experience has changed drastically in the past 15 years. Would people conditioned to multiple forms of stimulus be able to put away their cellphones and quiet their conversations long enough to follow and appreciate a more intricate plot?

This was the question that I had after watching "The Place Beyond the Pines." It's not that the storytelling is complicated, but it is the way that the story is told that may end up turning off an audience that's used to just tuning into the film between text messages.

"Pines" begins with stunt dirt bike rider Luke (Ryan Gosling) preparing for another show as a carnival sideshow star. After his performance, he encounters Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he shared a one-night stand with the previous year and who has tracked him down because she has a secret to share. It seems that their night together resulted in a son, Jason. Luke decides that he wants to be a part of Jason's life and prove himself to Romina so that she will leave Kofi, the current man in her life. To support himself, he signs on with a mechanic who, during their slower times, convinces Luke that his skill on a bike would make him the perfect bank robber. This sets off a chain of events that leads Luke to a fateful meeting with rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), and the aftermath of this meeting creates a legacy carried down to their sons.

I have to be careful in discussing the film, because there are so many key parts that set the stage for other parts later in the movie. To reveal one scene could spoil other parts of the movie. But I can say that in the telling of the story, I think a disconnect will occur with a good number of people in the audience.

The film undergoes several tonal shifts that can feel a bit jarring. It starts as a heist film, switches to a police corruption drama, then again to a coming-of-age tale where the characters must deal with the burdens of the past. In addition, it shifts points of view throughout the film, going from Luke to Avery to Avery's son to Luke's son. Such storytelling is anything but traditional and offers a unique perspective and options for director Derek Cianfrance. But these shifts will not be embraced by all. I saw multiple cellphone visits in my showing, and the audience consisted of about 20 people, so I can imagine it on a wider scale.

The performances were excellent, as would be expected. Gosling plays what comes off as a variation of his character from "Drive." He possesses a quiet demeanor and a skill with a vehicle, and he is equally capable of violent outbursts when provoked. Ordinarily I would worry about the lack of variation between the two, but Gosling is so precise in his acting that it is easy to become engrossed and to dismiss the similarities.

Cooper gives what I would consider his finest acting performance to date. He received an Oscar nomination for what was a pretty rote performance in "Silver Linings Playbook." Here, he shows genuine range, following the trajectory of his character through the 15-year time frame and reflecting how events have affected his life.

Also very good are the young actors who play the sons of the two main character. Emory Cohen is detestable as Avery's young son, A.J., a libido- and drug-fueled cad who makes you want to punch through the screen. On the flip side, as horrible as A.J. is, Luke's young son, Jason (Dane DeHaan), is as sympathetic. DeHaan, who was the emotional core of the excellent "Chronicle," must play damaged and strong, moral and immoral at the same time. He portrays the conflicting emotions that make up the character, and as such he adds the momentum that carries the remainder of the film.

"Pines" is imperfect in its flaws, but put together it makes for a challenging, frustrating, yet rewarding film. It won't be embraced by mainstream audiences, but as it makes its way quickly to home video, I believe it will find a wider audience.