“The Place Beyond the Pines” is the kind of film that the most apocalyptic critics inherently and desperately want to adore: a sweeping, multi-generational drama that cares far more for subtle characterization and human interaction than whiz-bang special effects. Here we have Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, two of the hottest (metaphorically or, I’m told, otherwise) leading men in Hollywood today, on opposite sides of the law in an intense crime drama – listen closely and you can hear the drip-drip-drip of studio executives salivating at the very thought – but on screen the stars are tied together more by invisible lines of fate and consequence than by coldly calculated trailer-bait tete-a-tetes. “Pines” is at once ambitious and intimate, like James Cameron suddenly decided he wanted to play at Sundance.
The scale of the film is certainly something relatively unique to recent independent cinema. The director, Derek Cianfrance, seeks to spread the brutally authentic sensibility of his previous, debut feature “Blue Valentine” out into a sprawling fable of fathers and sons, of crime and the law, of the past and the future. Split into three sections of roughly equal length, “The Place Beyond the Pines” languishes on actions of import large and small, suggesting that significance can be found through the power of screen time. The pure grandiosity of it all is both to the film’s advantage and detriment: when it’s working, we can palpably feel the weight on the shoulders of Cianfrance’s overburdened characters; when it’s not, the audience can quickly shift from empathetic to bored.
The first section centers on Handsome Luke, a variation on Gosling’s stoic anti-hero from “Drive.” A talented motorcycle driver drifting aimlessly as a sideshow attraction, Luke encounters an old flame, Romina (Mendes), discovering that she had his child about a year earlier. Determined not to be a no-show like his own father, Luke attempts to insert himself into his son’s life – Romina, for her part, has the good sense to realize this isn’t the best idea, but a powerful attraction blocks her from acting on her better instincts. Unable (or unwilling) to find gainful employment in Schenectady (a Mohawk word for, yes, “The Place Beyond the Pines”) Luke decides to seek alternate methods of supporting his newfound family, joining with another small-time crook (Ben Mendelsohn, quickly turning into an invaluable character actor) to rob local banks.
In Refn’s film, Gosling’s Driver was a man of violence by nature, not by choice. Like many a Western and noir hero, he defended the peace of civilized society, but could never belong to it himself. Though Luke radiates the same kind of quiet cool (and shares an affinity for motor vehicles), he’s not exactly the same character: Luke makes a very conscious decision to plunge down the rabbit hole. He is driven there by principles that are well-intentioned but don’t quite accept reality. Perhaps only Ryan Gosling would be able to make these kinds of fine distinctions while barely speaking a word.
The fallout from Luke’s chosen path unravels slowly, spiraling out until it encounters police officer Avery Cross (Cooper), at which point the film completely shifts focus from one generic crime tale to another. Some of Avery’s friends within the department turn out to be corrupt, and others are Ray Liotta, which are two ways of saying the same thing. This is undoubtedly the part of the film where Cianfrance’s protracted tracking shots and closeups become dead weight: Cooper doesn’t have the same effortless charisma as Gosling (if Cooper is charming in other films, and that’s a big if, he’s working a lot for it), and Avery as written is a jumble of inconsistencies. The film can never decide if he’s a principled do-gooder or a secretly savvy operator, and the time spent with him is more mystifying than clarifying.
The third and final act is the freshest, as we skip ahead 15 or 16 years in time as, by chance, Luke and Avery’s sons, AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan), encounter each other at school. You get the feeling that this is the story that Cianfrance really wanted to tell, and that all that came before is just background – not exactly unnecessary, but again one does wonder if the editor couldn’t have hacked a half hour or so out of Cooper’s screen time and given it to Cohen and DeHaan. The boys are clearly peculiarly attracted to each other – perhaps sexually, perhaps not, but close enough to result in the sort of recreational drug use and violence that often serves as a distraction from such adolescent discomforts.
Cianfrance’s narrative scope is an intriguing experiment, more reminiscent of Victorian literary tropes (e.g. “Wuthering Heights”) than modern cinema. It is difficult to criticize the writer/director for spending too much time with Luke and Avery, when so much of the effectiveness of the third act comes from the way AJ and Jason unconsciously carry the weight of all that has come before. The actions of one generation ripple across time to the next, only for the circle to start all over again. “This isn’t about your son,” one character barks at Avery in a particularly fraught moment, but of course they are wrong – everything in this movie is about his son, and about Jason. “The Place Beyond the Pines” takes an Old Testament approach regarding the sins of our fathers.
Yet the forty-minutes-each approach doesn’t really allow Cianfrance to plumb the emotional depths that he reached in “Blue Valentine.” We can despair at the tangled, oppressive fate of this little collective of working-class folk, but none of the individuals stick around long enough to produce truly wrenching emotion. The first third is an assured thriller, the second a clumsy moral drama, the third an enigmatic character study that closes things off on a properly poignant note; but what exactly does that all add up to? I wouldn’t say that the film “overreaches” as many other critics have – it’s the very idea of an earnest epic that distinguishes “Pines” – but it can’t find quite the right balance in its varied ensemble.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars