A searing honesty permeated every frame of director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, about the decaying marriage of a young couple, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. His latest film, The Place Beyond The Pines, is a more sprawling tale that follows two fathers and two sons over many years. Although it explores some ambitious themes, the film is way too long, a tad confused, and never as genuinely affecting as the earlier one.
Set in Schenectady, a small town in upstate New York, The Place Beyond The Pines stars a blond-haired Gosling as Luke, a motorcycle stunt rider in a traveling carnival. When he runs into an old flame (Eva Mendes), Luke is surprised to discover that she’s been raising his baby. In trying to provide for his son and win his girl back, Luke drops out of the carnival and sets off on a series of bank robberies. During one attempted getaway, Luke crosses paths with rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), who has a wife and a baby boy of his own. Their fateful encounter alters the course of their lives and the destinies of their sons.
Despite their limited screen time together, Gosling and Cooper’s characters are a study in extremes. If Luke has a ticking time-bomb unpredictability to him, then Avery is cautious and guarded, as if his every word and action was carefully rehearsed and thought through. The film in fact is most engaging when it focuses on these two men (particularly Gosling’s tattooed, charismatic Luke), and before it slips into its third act that takes place 15 years after the story first opens. This last chapter, centered on the teenage sons of our protagonists, feels unnecessarily drawn out and largely contrived.
In Blue Valentine, Cianfrance made you care about his characters deeply without manipulating your emotions in an obvious way, or “spelling out” what you were expected to feel. A big part of the reason why Pines feels like a lesser film in comparison, is because the makers lay it on thick in so many places, particularly a scene in which a psychiatrist deconstructs Avery’s somberness after a supposedly heroic act. That scene has the subtlety of a trombone.
Through this interconnecting story of two families, Cianfrance addresses themes of fate, guilt, and the repercussions of the choices we make. Not all of it works, but you can’t accuse him of laziness. Skilfully shot, a lot of it hand-held, the film creates a recognizable sense of place, and gives us supporting characters that feel real. Chief among these is the seedy garage mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn) who introduces Luke to the idea of bank robbing.
Unfortunately the film relies too heavily on coincidence to drive its plot, and Luke and Avery’s grown-up sons simply aren’t compelling as them, rendering the finale a crushing disappointment. Still, I’m going with three out of five for The Place Beyond The Pines. Watch it for Gosling’s riveting performance, and for the ambition of its intentions.