‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ squanders a riveting first hour
On paper, The Place Beyond the Pines is an intriguing prospect — an updated riff on the story of sins passed through the generations from fathers to sons. What is all the more arousing is the idea of writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) spearheading the material. In short, Cianfrance fails to thoroughly deliver in his second feature as much of the emotional heft of Blue Valentine is stripped away in Pines. The ambient mood of such a world is intact as Pines pivots between a grizzled Greek tragedy and a kinetic thriller. Though in the end, the director’s pursuit of the next great American epic eventually falls short as it mistakes commonplace familial quarreling for hardship and pathos.
There’s a strong correlation between motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling) and his character from Drive, as both are troubled drifters looking for something else to fulfill their aimless and icy existence. Luke is covered in tattoos, suggesting a past filled with trouble and heartache. He decides he wants to re-connect with past flame Romina (Eva Mendes) when he learns that their prior year fling had spawned a kid. Luke decides to ante up and play daddy, only to be caught up in a world of crime to support the child. Teaming with the shady Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), the duo embarks on a string of bank robberies putting them in the path of local cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Much of the first half of Pines leaves the viewer with a startling immediacy as Luke rides with an air of electric fury around the foreboding streets of Schenectady, New York (the film’s proper setting).
After a bold narrative choice, the film’s momentum is slowly drained as the hyper ferocity of the first hour is substituted for a less than involving police procedural arc involving Cooper’s character, whose role as a blue collar policemen fails to even register on a dramatic level. While Avery’s attempt at balancing his personal and professional life begins as an ominous gesture, it ends up resulting in a corruption scheme that lends little weight to the film. Rose Byrne appears as Cooper’s wife, who along with Ray Liotta and Bruce Greenwood are utilized to non-stellar degrees. One of the film’s fatal flaws is how it casts aside its female characters; Byrne and Mendez have little to do aside from wearing the same face of startled dismay throughout. Aside from Gosling, the real standout is the incredibly reliable Ben Mendelsohn, an actor who seems to be slowly taking the reigns as one of Hollywood’s more reliable and dynamic character actors.
There’s a lot to like about Pines, but sadly, almost all of it is contained within the film’s unpredictable and riveting first hour. Take the film’s opening sequence: an intoxicating tracking shot that follows Luke as he slowly makes his way to a dangerous stunt at a carnival in upstate New York. As he arrives at the venue, we’re witness to an awe-inspiring stunt called a “Texas Twist,” featuring a trio of stunt drivers racing around at top speeds in a circular metal cage while the camera remains static. It’s both a testament to the fatalistic world in which Luke moves through, and the cool and relaxed bravado of the director. Cianfrance would answer questions after the screening on how the stunt was done, detailing how director of photography Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) was almost injured twice in the process.
Pines ventures down a path of calculated melodrama as the narrative makes a cringing time jump fifteen years after Avery’s arc. The sons of Luke and Avery (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) move to the forefront as each aggressively contemplate their lineage and shared legacy. Though only partially successful in his attempt to paint Schenectady as a place of resounding crime and violence, Cianfrance’s depiction of small-town fall outs lacks the juice and brevity to linger. While the film is mired in working class struggle and the ties that bind us, it mostly falls on deaf ears as the third act featuring DeHaan and Cohen is way too backheavy and bloated for its own good. Gosling’s portion of the film feels like a distant and unrecognizable relative to the events that follow. It’s tough to fault Cianfrance’s sprawling balancing act, but The Place Beyond the Pines ends with a bad taste rather than a sense of nimble storytelling. Cianfrance certainly has the talent, but Pines registers as nothing more than an overreaching misfire.
– Ty Landis