The new movie from Blue Valentine auteur Derek Cianfrance feels like a misfired adaptation of a sprawling American novel, like someone trying to take the whole of Steinbeck's East of Eden and bring the literary soap opera together in as close to two hours as possible. When such efforts fail, it's for trying to include too much and yet invariably not including enough, losing the essence of the material. That the 140-minute The Place Beyond the Pines comes across as having the same problems, and yet is a wholly original effort from Cianfrance and two other writers, means that somewhere along the way one of the scribes lost their grip. It's still a decent movie, but a judicious editor should have come in and sliced off that extra 20 minutes and found the much better film The Place Beyond the Pines could have been instead.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a multi-generational tale that spans fifteen years in Schenectady, NY, showing the interweaving stories of fathers and sons and how fate can often pull a double-cross as they age and evolve. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver in a traveling carnival who quits the circuit when he discovers that he fathered a child on his last visit through town. The boy's mother, Romina (Eva Mendes), reluctantly lets Luke back into her life. She has a good relationship with another man, one that is more stable than what she could likely have with a hothead drifter. In trying to prove his value, Luke turns to robbing banks, which eventually gets him tangled up with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop from a well-to-do family. What goes down between them sets off reverberations that affect both of their children. Avery has a son, as well, and the two boys are the same age.
Jump ahead a decade-and-a-half and the boys end up at the same high school. Luke's kid, Jason (Dane DeHaan, Chronicle), is nearing burnout. The distance between him and his dad has left him without the guidance he wants and resenting the parental supervision he does get, regardless of how good it is. Across town, Avery hasn't been there for his boy, AJ (Emory Cohen, TV's Smash), either. While the father has been climbing the political ladder, the son has been getting involved in drugs and thug posturing. AJ and Jason tussle, carrying on the tradition begun by their dads, and part of a bundle of heavy-handed, contrived coincidences that mar much of The Place Beyond the Pines's second half. Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder seem to have only a fumbling grasp for metaphor and mistake repetition for thematic resonance.
Even so, take a step back and appreciate The Place Beyond the Pines as the kind of old fashioned literary epic I referenced at the outset, and there is actually quite a bit worth watching here, even if the best material is front loaded with the adults. Both Avery and Luke are faced with difficult choices, and the moral quandaries on both sides of the tracks are not nearly as cut and dried as they appear on the surface. Bradley Cooper is particularly suited for the ethical conflicts he encounters on the police force. As an actor, he delivers his clearest, least affected performance to date. Cooper has often gotten by on his good looks, but since there is nothing pretty about Avery or the life he makes for himself, not even as he adopts the trappings of success, the actor gets little opportunity to mug for the camera.
Gosling, on the other hand, isn't nearly as convincing as the bad guy. He's basically playing a variation of his getaway artist from Drive, though where Nicolas Winding Refn designed that character as an Eastwood-esque man of action, doing much and saying little, Cianfrance tends to let his leading man run at the mouth. Luke is the emo cousin to the Driver, too busy showing his hand to play it. Gosling clearly likes the kind of scumbag Cianfrance writes for him, but just like in Blue Valentine, he ends up looking like a movie star trying to shake off his glitzy image by slumming in worn-out T-shirts and idiotic tattoos. It's almost like watching a parody of a method actor.
Cianfrance clearly has a fetish for 1970s filmmaking, and he and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Shame) create a kind of amalgam of Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese. The Place Beyond the Pines has much of the beauty of Days of Heaven but the immediacy of Mean Streets. Cianfrance favors long takes, and he likes to let his actors run with the scene and work his way around them. It can be absolutely riveting, such as when Avery chases down Luke in their initial encounter, but there are too many times when it's overly indulgent. Tightening up the dialogue and resisting the urge to show yet another sunset could have gone a long way to bringing The Place Beyond the Pines together and keep it from meandering. One gets a sense that Cianfrance is too in love with the way life looks when under his command, and so he's more apt to keep chasing that feeling rather than subdue it. Normally, I'm a champion of long, leisurely paced movies, but unlike efforts by the aforementioned Mr. Malick or someone like Andrew Dominik, Cianfrance doesn't use elongation to create a sense of space or mood. It just feels like he went long simply because he could.
Luckily, there's enough good work in The Place Beyond the Pines--including excellent supporting turns by Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, and Ben Mendelsohn--and a strong enough narrative outline that the film still has plenty of high points. Enough to recommend it, but with plenty of reservations.