Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) and Directors' Ambition

"If you ride the lightning, you're going to crash like thunder."

So says Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to Luke (Ryan Gosling) in the first act of The Place Beyond the Pines, co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to 2010's Blue Valentine. The same could be said of Cianfrance, who, along with co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, admirably tries to tell a sweeping, ambitious narrative of desperate men doing desperate things and paying the consequences, but ultimately can't hold everything together for the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. In fact, it's easier to think of the film as three interrelated vignettes, one of which is great while the other two are merely good.

Dane DeHaan in The Place Beyond the Pines

So here I posit my question: did Cianfrance reach too far with this film? I would say "yes," that his talents as a director and writer are outmatched by the breadth of this material. This is not to say that Cianfrance is a poor director; by all means, go see Blue Valentine again, and The Place Beyond the Pines has plenty of moments that shine (especially in the first act). This is a case in which his ambitions were greater than his abilities, and though the film starts strong, Cianfrance isn't able to hold it all together through the end, resulting in a film that is messy but no less fascinating.

(And, to be fair, these kinds of sprawling, multi-generation stories carry a great degree of difficulty with them. When you have the benefits of time and exposition, as in television and novels, respectively, they become easier to manage. But when you have only two or three hours - or less - to tell the story, it becomes much, much more difficult. Even a film that does handle this kind of scope well, such as Babel, still ends up with some noticeable flaws and weaker passages.)

There's nothing wrong with an ambitious director reaching too far, though, especially early in their career. In fact, I would argue that doing so is perhaps better than the alternative. When I say ambitious, I don't necessarily mean expansive movies like The Place Beyond the Pines. But I do think that when directors stretch themselves by tackling genres/narratives/etc. that are outside of their established wheelhouses, it makes not only for fascinating films but also finds the directors discovering what they can (and can't) do. Take, for example, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. By no means a bad movie, it's obvious that the movie he wanted to make had been butchered into a product that did not appeal to the public. He hasn't stretched himself like that since, instead turning in the one-two punch of The Wrestler and Black Swan. Now he's working on his Noah's Ark film, which is certainly ambitious and could be his second chance at a Fountain-type film.

Which brings up my final question: is it a good thing for ambitious directors of stumble? I would argue that it depends on the level of failure. A film like The Place Beyond the Pines isn't likely to end Cianfrance's career - he'll no doubt make more films in the future, though it is possible that Blue Valentine could be his one major film. The Fountain didn't end Aronofsky's career, and plenty of other directors have survived falling short in ambitious films. But a high-profile failure can be deadly: I still think it's a shame that Kerry Conran, who directed the highly imaginative and thoroughly exhilarating Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, still hasn't been able to make a follow-up feature.

And now I ask you, dear readers: what do you think of all this? Should directors stretch themselves or stay within their comfort zones?