The Best Film on TV this Week

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012, Derek Cianfrance)

A major new American director called Derek? Derek? How can a latter-day cinematic conjuror be saddled with such a prosaic first name? Directors used to be called Orson or even King… Still, he makes up for it by having an unpronounceable surname and a gift for making films that get under your skin. The Place Beyond the Pines has got a few problems, which we’ll come to in a bit, but it’s big on mood, atmosphere, strong images, emotive music cues and an unexpected mythic dimension.

The most interesting aspect of this film is its narrative structure. The Place Beyond the Pines tells three consecutive connected stories, concerning a motorcycle stunt rider/criminal (played by Ryan “Who wouldn’t wanna fuck him?!” Gosling), a cop (Bradley “One eye lower than the other” Cooper), and (after a time jump) their teenage sons. In doing so, the film dispenses with the cumulative dramatic drive of a standard three-act structure, replacing it with something more literary or, perhaps, televisual.

The Place Beyond the Pines certainly appears to be influenced by drama series such as The Sopranos and The Wire. Ironically, when these series first arrived they were praised for being ‘cinematic’. Now, film seems envious of television’s facility with extended stories and complex characters. Hopefully, we’re getting to the point where no medium will be automatically treated with snobbery or contempt, but instead valued for its particularities and potential.

The critical consensus appears to be that the three tales get progressively less effective. For me, the third part is both the most successful and the most daring. To jump ahead fifteen years is a bold narrative choice when it risks alienating the audience (so conditioned have we all become to conventional modes of storytelling). That it not only works but also succeeds in enriching the previous stories is particularly impressive. Atonement tried a similar device and, unfortunately, didn’t manage to pull it off.

So, what are the problems? The big issues are the conventional nature of the middle story and, crucially, the female roles. Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne only seem to exist when alongside their men and are criminally underused. Why doesn’t Cianfrance follow the story of one/or both of these characters? Sometimes (correction: almost all the time) mainstream films are just too damn male. If the genders of the major characters in this film were reversed, it would be labelled a ‘women’s picture’; because we’re dealing with at least three male protagonists it comes under the genre of crime/drama. There’s a long way to go…

Finally, the title: The Place Beyond the Pines. Apparently, it comes from an old Mohawk word, from which the name Schenectady (where the film is set) is derived. Is it too much? Pretentious? Up its own arse? Possibly. But, I rather like it.

Sam Bowles

The Place Beyond the Pines is showing Tuesday 6 January, 9.00pm Film4

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