Ambitious, thought-provoking, unwieldy, and frustratingly disjointed, The Place Beyond the Pines is a daring art piece about the sins of the father. With a vivid opening tracking shot, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) announces that he’s working on a larger canvas. As it goes, The Place Beyond the Pines is an ultimately unsatisfying three-act drama spanning multiple generations.
The first 45 minutes delivers – mostly – on what is promised from another collaboration between Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine, Drive). As Luke Glanton, a bleached-blonde, tattoo-covered motorcycle stunt rider and bank robber trying to provide for his family while stranded in Schenectady, NY, Gosling is brooding, stoic, and full of explosive physical motion. Of course, he could have operated off the fumes of his recent work with Nicolas Winding Refn; few actors are as riveting doing absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, the setup is thrilling; the film is one-third wonderful.
Regrettably, that story ends quickly, and the narrative shifts abruptly towards Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook), a cop with political ambitions. Although this act is far less rewarding, Cianfrance just about pulls it off. But he continues to lurch and tangle: he widens his scope a third time to jump 15 years into the future. Suddenly, the film is about two high schoolers dealing with parental pressures and experimenting with drugs.
Cianfrance cannot be criticized for being timid or safe: he is patient, non-ironic, observational, and courageous in his confrontations with moral compromises. We saw those qualities on glorious display in Blue Valentine. Contrastingly, The Place Beyond the Pines is well acted and beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame), yet languorous and prolonged and patently obvious. It burns so slowly that its wick fizzles out. Its script feels feels scrappy and thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. It is overly reliant on tense moments and melodramatic coincidences.
Valentine was honest and subtle; Pines telegraphs its message at the beginning and weakens as it unfolds. In addition, its themes are so diverse and innumerable – fate, fatherhood, legacy, morality, justice – that they are never fully explored or connected. The film has much to recommend it, but its eventual impact is virtually negligible. After 140 minutes of moviemaking from a talented director and cast, that’s a bigger disappointment than most.