Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Derek Cianfrance in "The Place Beyond the Pines" (2013)

Scene from The Place Beyond the Pines
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Film: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category (2013):
-American Hustle
-Blue Jasmine
-Dallas Buyers Club

If one were to ask for a personal list of modern directors that I feel are great, or at least promising, there is no doubt that Derek Cianfrance would be high on that list. For starters, I consider Blue Valentine to be one of my all time favorite films, as I feel it perfectly reflects the struggles of romance alongside a colorful pallet that emphasizes a daze-like quality. It's raw and personal in ways that cinema often should be. What the film ends up having the most is heart, and the performances manage to warrant more than their fair share of attention. The fact that each character is neither perfect or flawed in ridiculous ways only adds to the depth and power of the film. While he hasn't done much in the years since, he has remained atop my list. You can easily understand then why I am looking forward to The Light Between Oceans.

So why then would I discuss Cianfrance as a Runner-Up? To be totally honest, I definitely think that he's destined for some recognition at some point in his career. He ambitiously has explored familial dynamics over his past three films, and I only think that it's time until one of his tales resonates with audiences. Who knows. Maybe The Light Between Oceans will be that film. However, it would be difficult to pin any prediction on him just yet. Instead, I might as well discuss why he's ambitious by focusing on the one film that feels like he tried his hardest, and produced one of the most unique dramas of the past few years: The Place Beyond the Pines

The film feels like an obscure gem after only three years. What's even more odd is that Bradley Cooper only had one Oscar nomination at this time (were we ever so young?). Still, it is a story that one could easily understand its intentions by looking at the structure. The film is a triptych: a story told in three parts. In this case, it focuses on the influence of fathers and sons. It starts with a motorcycle riding bank robber (Ryan Gosling) before transitioning to the police officer who chased him (Cooper) before focusing on their sons. What is meant to be explored is how sometimes the past unbeknownst to character ends up having a great impact on their personal lives. With the help of an overlapping mentor (Ben Mendelsohn), the story plays out flawlessly by creating a deeper sympathy for every character. If nothing else is achieved, there is a universal understanding as to why these events took place.

While a phenomenal film, I can understand why Blue Valentine's screenplay was overlooked. However, I don't entirely understand the absence of The Place Beyond the Pines. When one looks at the main goal of screen writing, it is to tell engaging and sometimes challenging stories. Cianfrance has done nothing but that and I feel comes across better for it. It does help that his casts usually have great chemistry that elevates their performances. However, it is the story at the center, told intricately and with precision that turns an otherwise straightforward story into pure cinema. Considering how it cleverly plays around with the fathers/sons motif, it is hard to not at least come away with an appreciation for what the story is talking about.

One of the things that helps it stand out is that it doesn't have a redundant theme. Every chapter has a different feel. Gosling's chapter is a thrilling bank heist movie where the tragedy is that he doesn't love his family. It is about here that you can blame the ads for "misleading" the movie by not sharing its triptych structure. Cooper shoots Gosling and has to deal with the procedural work following the death. It's the sons that inevitably have to come to terms with the conflict of liking each other despite having parents with hostile relationships. It's not a tidy story, but Cianfrance's ability to focus on motifs and an ethereal Mike Patton score only helps to make this a story that isn't being told anywhere else. 

If I can be totally honest, 2013 was a phenomenal year for cinema and most of the Best Original Screenplay nominations were fine. While I think that some haven't aged that well (Dallas Buyers Club), most of the ones nominated reflect the variety of craft that has gone into great writing. I definitely think that Her deserved to win. However, I think that there should've still been room for something as ambitious and singular as The Place Beyond the Pines: whose biggest fault was that it was released early in the year. Considering that 2013 was the year that the Best Picture category only had nominees released after October, it makes sense that few films stood a chance elsewhere. Even then, one can only imagine what would happen if more ambitious screenplays were nominated.

I am still optimistic that Cianfrance will have a moment to get into the Oscars circle. I personally have enjoyed what he has offered in recent years and am only looking forward to what he does next. Until then, I recommend checking out The Place Beyond the Pines to understand what dedication and craft can bring to a film. It isn't just the performances or heart that make this film work. It's the clever screenplay and the feeling of authenticity that is often missing from screenplays. I am not guaranteeing that it will make you cry, but there's a good chance that it will become one of those cult classic films about fathers and sons that will be held as a classic in 10 years time. If nothing else, I just hope that Cianfrance still has the gift for stories when that time comes.

*NOTE: This concludes the summer series on The Runner-Ups. Come back on Saturday, September 17 for the third season of Failed Oscar Campaigns. Trust me, it'll be another year full of fun and baffling stories (and of course, Harvey Weinstein).

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