The Place Beyond the Pines (Director: Derek Cianfrance): The Place Beyond the Pines derives its title from the English translation of the Mohawk name for Schenectady, New York, where the film is set. Director Derek Cianfrance’s third feature is the follow-up to 2010’s widely praised Blue Valentine, a movie whose supposed magnificence was lost on me. Cianfrance reteams with one of that film’s stars, Ryan Gosling, for one of The Place Beyond the Pines‘ three segments, unfolding over a 15 year period with interconnected storylines, mixing elements of crime drama, teenage angst, questions about fate, and the complexities of father-son relationships.
The first segment is unquestionably the film’s strongest, with Gosling further refining the brooding anti-hero character that seems to have become his stock-in-trade. His Luke character is introduced in the film’s great opening scene which employs an extensive single tracking shot, as the audience views his heavily tattooed body and carnival motorcycle stunt rider profession, conveying Luke’s societal fringe elements without saying a word. Luke’s white trash status is also reinforced by the repeated wearing of a Metallica Ride The Lightning muscle tee and a ratty white t-shirt worn inside out in public, tag and all (I love that the latter is never addressed by any characters Luke meets). A reconnection with a woman (Romina, played by a solid Eva Mendes) with whom he had a quickie fling the last time his job brought him to town reveals that he’s the father of her two-year old son. The news awakens Luke’s paternal instincts and he attempts to insert himself back into the pair’s lives, despite the complication of another man in Romina’s life. Desperate to prove he can provide for Romina and his son, Luke ends up robbing banks, with the assistance of a scruffy auto mechanic he’s met (an excellent Ben Mendelsohn providing some understated comic relief). Aspects of Luke and his deeds immediately bring to mind Gosling’s role from last year’s Drive. Despite the similarities in roles surprisingly played so close to each other, Gosling’s unpredictable, violence-prone character commands the screen for the approximately hourlong length of his segment. His storyline does admittedly benefit from the best writing of the three segments, courtesy of screenwriters Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder.
Gosling’s dynamism and that first segment’s brilliance are only highlighted by the significantly diminishing returns that follow it. Segment two features Bradley Cooper as a rookie cop who finds himself involved in Luke’s story, with other subplots involving police corruption, morality, and an unhappy marriage also playing out. I’ve always found Cooper to be a rather dull actor and his performance here hasn’t changed my opinion; that, combined with the segment’s derivative story, managed to effectively kill my segment one buzz. The writing is also too uneven – Cooper’s character is set up as a smart, moral person, yet those qualities are a little too conveniently discarded when he’s presented with a career-altering decision. Bruce Greenwood is memorable in a small role as a high-ranking cop, while Ray Liotta’s turn as an intimidating, crooked cop feels like the kind of role we’ve seen from him dozens of times already.
Segment three completes The Place Beyond the Pines‘ downhill slide, focussing on the teenage sons (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) of Gosling’s and Cooper’s characters. As the snoozy storyline featuring bratty behaviour from the screwed up high school students developed, I could never get past the fact the segment hinged on their chance meeting and eventual friendship. That meeting, considering the inextricably linked history they share via their fathers, was simply far too coincidental for me to suspend disbelief. Also distracting: a time jump of 15 years reveals Cooper’s character and that of his wife (played by Rose Byrne) to have seemingly not aged at all, while Mendes’ Romina looks to have aged about 25 years.
I respect the fact that Cianfrance took some risks with The Place Beyond the Pines, which had its world premiere at TIFF – he throws in a major plot twist relatively early on and the movie’s segmented structure is definitely a gamble and somewhat unconventional, but unfortunately, the loosely connected narrative and performances don’t hold together over the course of the film’s too-long 140 minute running time. The disappointing ending shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone who has just witnessed the decline from the first-rate quality of the riveting opening segment to the progressively inferior chapters that follow. As the last third plays out, that swing has been so dramatic that it almost feels like we’re watching an altogether different movie.