[Editor’s Note: Spoilers follow for Before Midnight and The Place Beyond the Pines].
Even your most personal experiences can be universal. Richard Linklater’s career-defining trilogy accepts that notion as fact, parlaying a simple romantic encounter into a meditation on life, love, and the innumerable ways that time affects both. Before Midnight is the full-bodied answer to Before Sunset’s figurative fade-to-black question mark – a full committal to exploring the ramifications of Celine and Jesse’s decisions. It’s a more bracing film to endure, and the first of the trilogy that’s in no way a fairy tale – all the character flaws before suggested but never given the chance to germinate have slowly seeped in – but in its influx of ugliness it feels all the more real.
What makes the first two films so alive is their urgency – as the titles allude to, every furtive glance and moment of connection is set against a ticking clock. Midnight doesn’t quite share that pressing nature, but what it lacks in immediacy it makes up for in depth. Though the gap between films is again nine years, there’s a crucial difference this time around. The reunion in Sunset allowed the audience to discover details of the interim in tandem with Celine and Jesse. Midnight picks up after a period entirely shared by the pairing that the viewer wasn’t privy to, so there’s an entire nine years for Linklater to shade in.
He does so subtly, such as when Celine starts into an anecdote about her father killing kittens by noting that she may have told Jesse the story before. It’s a moment that encapsulates an evolution – freshness wears off, and you have to substitute something to fill the void. That struggle, whether realized by the characters or not, is tangible because Jesse and Celine are so wonderfully realized – every interaction feels genuine, every expression has meaning. There’s a moment where Celine asks Jesse, “If we were meeting for the first time today on the train, would you talk to me? Would you ask me to step out of the train with you?” Their relationship dictates that Jesse answer “of course,” and he does. But the look on his face when the question is posed speaks volumes about both them and us all. The film acknowledges the complexity of how passing time can simultaneously strengthen and erode our connections.
Linklater makes the bold choice to, for the first time in the series, introduce an actual ensemble to compliment his dynamic couple. Representatives of every stage of romantic love could easily have been heavy-handed, but there’s an authenticity to their conversation that elevates the material. Placing Jesse and Celine in a continuum is the jumping off point for an increased focus on gender roles – each anecdote shared by these women and men resonates in some way with the leads, and tiptoes into their contact for the rest of the film. There’s a tangible build from scene-to-scene – a creeping anxiety that culminates in a stunning set piece which forces Jesse and Celine to confront some horrifying possibilities.
To his credit, Linklater artfully balances the sense of dismay with the same brand of engaging conversation that’s typified the franchise. At its most emotionally raw, Midnight’s difficult to watch, but only because we, like Celine and Jesse themselves, care so very deeply.
As Linklater concluded his triptych on the passages of time, Derek Cianfrance boldly attempted a similar cinematic feat within the confines of a single feature. The young director impressed with his previous drama, Blue Valentine, and with The Place Beyond the Pines, he’s widened his scope without sacrificing potency. Ryan Gosling stars, as he did in Valentine, this time as a motorcycle stunt rider who, for familial reasons, gets embroiled in a criminal lifestyle. His story echoes through those of Bradley Cooper’s troubled cop and Dane DeHaan’s wayward teen, as the film ruminates on guilt, family, and morality.
Both to its credit and detriment, Pines is a narratively ambitious film. Terms like “novelistic” have been hurled around because of its conscious strive toward greatness and grandiosity – the kind of unfolding epic tale not often attempted, let alone by a filmmaker so young. For all its imperfections, the effort is appreciated – though certain aspects feel schematic to a fault, Cianfrance’s strict focus on character carries the film through those rough patches. Because the film operates within such a pre-determined template (it’s worth asking whether Cianfrance devised his method before the story itself), there’s an expected amount of plot contrivance to channel us from point A to B.
As alluded to, the film has three distinct chronological movements, the third in many ways a synthesis of the prior two. Like Linklater, Cianfrance devotes each successive act to exploring the fallout of what’s come before, unafraid to dwell in messiness and emotional complexity. Most of the fireworks arrive in Gosling’s introductory segment, which includes a thrilling series of bank robberies and motorcycle chases that rank up there with some of the best recorded. Not as splashy as something from The Fast and the Furious franchise, the action has a noticeable grit and verve thanks to some artfully composed handheld camerawork. Following those outbursts of action, Cooper and DeHaan’s stories are quieter, but infused with an existential dread.
For the second consecutive Cianfrance film, neglecting to single out the performances proves impossible. He summons such intensity and rawness from his cast that the most quiet, intimate moments become the most engaging. Gosling, Cooper, and DeHaan (essentially the three co-leads) each convey great inner turmoil and volatility, which allows the film’s explosive moments to land that much harder. Their lofty moral qualms combined with the lushly rendered world (the titular pines of the upstate New York locations have a suffocating quality), create a heavy and heightened atmosphere for drama. In its almost neo-Shakespearean aims, the film remains tonally melodramatic enough to forgive any familiarity in its “sins of the father” trajectory. Moment to moment, the sharp character focus leads to well earned payoffs.
The film’s humanity comes from every character’s misguided grasps at atonement, and the fascinating way each spirals out of control when faced with huge ethical dilemmas. Blue Valentine was looser, more improvisational, but Pines manages to grapple with bigger ideas without feeling hackneyed. Both Cianfrance and Linklater have a knack for creating those moments that resonate in their universality. Amid all the artifice associated with Hollywood, there are still a few capable of simply making something real.