Sanity Prevails is a bi-weekly column in which Calum Marsh endeavors to fight widespread wrongness, whether in the form of disconcerting trends, misguided critical opinions, or other cinematic affronts to good taste and reason.
Derek Cianfrance, despite being a patently awful filmmaker, has been fortunate enough to develop a reputation of some esteem. His latest film, the working-class epic “The Place Beyond The Pines," has thus far benefited from the same unduly warm reception which greeted his similarly overdetermined actors’ showcase “Blue Valentine”, with critics lauding the film’s repugnant poverty-porn histrionics without bothering to consider the implications. Cianfrance’s critical renown begins and ends with his veneer of stylized self-seriousness, his flair for formal pomposity and acting-workshop theatricality a favored shortcut to arthouse credibility, but, like most dazzling showmen, his illusions fall apart under scrutiny.
Though it tries very hard to present itself as a capital-m Major work, “The Place Beyond The Pines” is, frankly, a stupid film, not just clumsily designed and poorly executed but fundamentally ill-conceived. That it’s being hailed by so many and with such resounding enthusiasm is baffling.
“I never liked guns, man," intones a backwater mechanic faux-sagely. “They’re vulgar.” Indeed, everything in “The Place Beyond The Pines” is defined by its vulgarity, from handguns to motorbikes to hapless protagonists, but Cianfrance likes it all very much. He likes vulgarity as a surface to embellish and revel in, coating his picture in a thick layer of filth and grime more conducive to tracking shots and mood lighting.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” trades in affectations of the warped and unseemly, its broad-stroke class slumming nothing more than a noxious game of dress-up for the American cinema’s most pretentious would-be artiste. Its very particular vision of the nation’s working class—one it sustains through the bulk of its languorous 140 minute running time—seems not so much based on lived experience than inspired by bad TV, the milieu crudely sketched as a (literal) circus show of tattooed ruffians and exhausted single mothers.
For Cianfrance, character development is simply a matter of checking the boxes of obvious film-school tics: Luke (Ryan Gosling, whose trademark stoicism here congeals into outright blankness) wears his oversized t-shirts inside-out to signify his indifference to or ignorance of social convention; Romina (Eva Mendes, who deserves better) works nights at a quintessentially seedy greasy spoon and is introduced in a tight shirt sans bra, presumably to signify that she can’t afford one; corrupt police officer Deluca (Ray Liotta, in veritable self-parody) has perpetually shifty eyes, just in case it wasn’t clear that he’s evil.
Each in turn is regarded by the camera with equal parts distance and contempt. In lieu of three-dimensional characters, Cianfrance offers costumed figurines, each designed as a function of a screenplay too concerned with mannerisms to bother with any sense of reality. Much as the film doesn’t care about class, it doesn’t care about people: it’s all just raw material to mould into the shape of something dramatic, the pose itself more the point than the ideas.
This kind of hackneyed writing, from eye-rollingly simplistic characterisations to audience-pandering giveaways, is entirely typical of Cianfrance’s filmmaking sensibility, which treats form as a framework for an inflated sense of self-importance and story as a venue for Big Ideas he clearly doesn’t have. By virtue of its scope and overall grandiosity, “The Place Beyond The Pines” gives the impression of an almost novelistic substance, its protracted narrative spanning three interconnected generations with an eye on poignant butterfly effects and unexpected long-term consequences. But as an epic the film is merely posturing, straining to ever-expand its conceptual breadth without any concern for actual depth.
Wildly improbable coincidences arrive at every turn like narrative clockwork, their theme-explaining significance underscored with ham-fisted regularity: when one character’s actions are meant to reflect another’s in a bit of pseudo-clever (if painfully obvious) moral inversion, Cianfrance stages an already clear thematic echo as a shot-for-shot repetition of the earlier scene, the director so intent on getting his point across that he feels the need to underline it in thick felt-tip pen. It’s one thing for a film to be stupid or simple or thematically thin. It’s another for it to be so presumptuous about its intelligence that it feels the need to condescend.
Did this make you mad, or did it make you reconsider? Let us know in the comments.