A crime drama directed by an obscure American arthouse director, Derek Cianfrance, and starring two hip young Oscar-nominated actors? Sounds like my cup of tea.
On one hand, you’ve got Ryan Gosling as tatted-up carnival motorcyclist Luke Glanton; a bleach-blonde, barely repressed psychopath who develops a penchant for bank robbery in order to provide for his baby mama, an underused Eva Mendes.
A quiet, soft-spoken man, prone to bursts of sudden and brutal violence, who loves “his” kid, resents “his” woman’s partner, and has a natural talent for his chosen vehicle, you’d be forgiven for arguing that Luke sounds like a simple reiteration of the Driver, Gosling’s unnamed protagonist from Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. Luke, however, shows promise of being more than just a copy-and-paste protagonist.
The first act of The Place Beyond the Pines is an impeccably paced thriller that pairs Luke with a seedy garage owner – Ben Mendelsohn in a smarter, less foul-mouthed take on his character from Killing Them Softly – before proceeding to run him off the rails.
It’s at the exact point that things are beginning to go terribly wrong for Luke that we meet our secondary (or is that second?) protagonist, Bradley Cooper’s beat cop Avery Cross. As our view of Schenectady and Luke’s crime spree are divided abruptly in two, the film draws down and everything you might have expected from the first of its run-time goes straight out the window.
Sadly, this is the film’s best and only trick. I’ll refrain from giving spoilers – as Alfred Hitchcock said, “Don’t give away the ending…” – but suffice to say that The Place Beyond the Pines segues abruptly first into Copland territory – one honest cop making a stand against corruption, right down to the involvement of Ray Liotta – then a coming-of-age drama featuring Dane DeHaan of Chronicle fame.
In short, the film, presumably conceived as a triptych about damaged father-son relationships, feels like three separate stories only summarily connected. Plot strands fall by the wayside, important characters summarily abandoned: the danger about Hitchcockian tricks is that you can very easy alienate the audience, as I feel is the case with The Place Beyond the Pines.
Though beautifully shot by Cianfrance, with a haunting leitmotif-heavy score by Mike Patton, the film ultimately feels emotionally hollow. These journeys, oft repeated, through the wooded countryside and the shabby urbanity of Springsteen Country, acquire a significance that The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t lend to anything.
At a protracted 140 minutes in length, the tension and poetry both leech away till all that’s left is intention: before it was over, I was waiting for the film to end, however unsatisfactorily. In its final moments, though, the film does achieve a sort of circularity, neatly dovetailing the story of DeHaan’s Jason with that Luke.
It’s Gosling’s Luke, however, who stays with you, not Cooper’s ambitious policeman or DeHaan’s tormented high school student. The fundamental parallels between the law enforcer and the criminal, both centering around a baby – baptism and theft – are left unexplored, and all we, the audience, is left with is an unfulfilling rumination on honor and machismo.
Even so, I don’t feel I can quite do the film complete justice in this review, with paltry, near indecipherable notes and more than a week after viewing it, but that I’ve felt compelled to try says something about the fascination Cianfrance’s film holds, despite its myriad flaws.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a film I may be tempted to see again sometime in the future. Though a bit of a noble failure, there are few enough of those that it may be worth your time.