Director: Derek Cianfrance
Runtime: 140 minutes
Bold, intimate, and raw. These three adjectives, among many others, were thrown at Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine when it opened to rave reviews in 2010. That film was a split look at the rise and fall of a romance and marriage, confined entirely to characters navigating the ups and downs of every day life. As such, when Blue Valentine worked, it delivered tremendously powerful, and often unsettling, moments that burst from the screen. The same three above-mentioned adjectives can also be used to describe Cianfrance's follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, with one new addition: ambitious. Unfortunately, it's that new adjective that leaves Pines falling short of its lofty goals. For all of its merits, Pines is ultimately more admirable for its ambition, rather than its execution.
Split into three stories (each of which could, in a sense, be their own full-fledged films) linked by time, the film ultimately comes down to the relationships between fathers and sons. There's Luke (Ryan Gosling), a heavily tattooed, volatile motorcycle stuntman who learns that a former fling (Eva Mendes), has had his child. Meanwhile, fresh-faced cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) is doing his best to fight against corruption in the local police force, while also dealing with his own newborn son. Detailing how the story threads cross paths, and ultimately play out, would require quite of bit of plot spoiling. Suffice it to say that as time passes, and the film's scope widens, the plot becomes more and more dire for all involved.
In fact, the evolution between and among stories (one of which involves a 15 year jump forward) is the most compelling aspect of the script, written by Cianfrance, along with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. The ways in which actions, and the way we see them, echo across stories and time periods is often subtle, but lends the film a nice connective thread. Gosling is first introduced to us in a long tracking shot that follows him with his back turned to the camera. In the third part of the film, one of the first times we meet his high school-aged son Jason (Dane Dehaan), we also follow him as he keeps his back turned to us. It's a simple, but telling, bit of camera work that reinforces the idea that Luke (and therefore, any of his offspring) are outsiders, always moving forward and unable to sit still and settle down. Less clear is the titular place beyond the pines, which seems to be a vague manifestation of the place where bad decisions begin and/or play out.
Cianfrance's ability to link the stories is critical, as the film runs for nearly two and a half hours. Though the first hour or so is more energetic (Luke gets into the bank-robbing business) than the remaining screen time, the energy never really flags. If anything, Cooper carries more of the film than Gosling does, despite both presences looming over the entire film. His story at first seems more mundane, but it actually has equally (perhaps more?) interesting emotional territory to mine.
But as the film progresses, Cianfrance lets the widening scope of the material overwhelm him. Despite the nicely handled plot mechanics, Pines never achieves the emotional resonance that it clearly strives for. The most immediate comparison is last year's Cloud Atlas, a film which had to put so much effort into churning out its six stories coherently than it wasn't able to stick the landing on the emotional front. Even though all three sections of Pines are clearly linked on multiple levels, there's still the feeling that certain relationships aren't fully explored. A potentially gripping subplot involving Avery ratting out some dirty cops is glossed over (albeit elegantly) in order to get things moving forward.
Emotional developments suffer from this approach as well. Part three introduces us to Avery's troubled son AJ (Emory Cohen), yet the film never attempts to even hint at how the son of an upstanding cop became such a boor. Cohen's performance in the role doesn't help matters, and often feels overwrought. He's not merely troubled or volatile. He's a straight-up bully who we have no reason to empathize with. Faring much better is Dehaan, who actually has an interesting emotional conflict (struggling to connect to a very distant father).
Even this arc, however, is undermined by the overblown conclusion that the film leads towards. When the film reaches what should be its emotional high point, it ends with more of a whimper than a bang. The energy of the storytelling can only paper the lack of true character development for so long, and by the time the ending rolls around, the film's facade comes crumbling down. The ingredients, however, are all in place for a unique, mesmerizing character drama. Performances are solid across the board, with Gosling, Cooper, Dehaan, and Mendes all getting at least one brief moment to shine with some excellent silent emoting. And cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lends the film a richly colored, gritty look, while composer Mike Patton's unconventional score creates a unique atmosphere out of ghostly choirs and piano chords.
But the film has more energy than honest emotion. It's telling that the film's most compelling moment is a chase sequence (brilliantly shot in long takes from within a police car), and not the moments of emotional desperation in the final act. A side character played by Ben Mendelsohn (criminally underused) tells Luke that, "if you keep on riding like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder." Like Luke, The Place Beyond the Pines rides like lightning. When it crashes, however, it often sounds more like a hollow thud.