“The Place Beyond the Pines”, the new film from director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”) is really two and a half films and one of these is much better than the others, resulting in an uneven, unsuccessful work. I don’t like faulting someone for trying too hard, but…
Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed motorcycle stunt driver, looks up an old girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes), when the carnival he rides with is back in her hometown. He learns she had a son, his son, during the year he was away, and decides to stick around, despite the fact she is now living with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), her new boyfriend. The only way he feels he can get the money he needs is to start robbing banks, using his superb motorcycle riding skills to elude the law. He takes the money to Romina, but she rejects it. But her attraction to Luke proves to be very strong. Luke decides to amass as much money as possible and present it to Romina as a nest egg, and buy gifts for the baby, so he decides to rob two banks in one day. After the first robbery, Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie on the police force, spots him and pursues him on foot into a family home. Avery is wounded in action and becomes a bit of a celebrity. He uses the celebrity to quickly rise through the ranks of his department and eventually runs for public office. Fifteen years later, Avery's son, AJ (Emory Cohen), and Luke's son, Jason (Dan DeHaan), meet in high school and become friends, unaware of the history their fathers have.
Cianfrance became widely known when his second feature “Blue Valentine” began making the circuit. “Valentine” features amazing performances from the two leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Despite the depressing nature of the story, it is impossible to not watch the actors depict the downward spiral of this couple’s relationship. We recognize and identify with various aspects of their lives, but they are living through every bad aspect of a relationship and neither has the ability to make a change, any change, to break this heartbreaking spiral. The film is tragic and riveting, more so because we spend almost the entire film with just these two people. This allows Cianfrance, Gosling and Williams to go to places we don’t see a lot and the actors are able to explore the depths of despair in which these two characters live. The narrow scope also allows the director and actors to concentrate on their relationship, to make it as powerful, and interesting as possible.
When someone experiences success at something, he or she usually wants to set their sights on something bigger, to expand their skills, knowledge, risk and reward. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is bigger; more characters, a multi-generational storyline, more going on. The film represents quite a leap forward for Cianfrance, maybe too much of a leap. I applaud Cianfrance for pushing forward, for trying something different, but the development of the characters and the narrative both fall short.
The first part of the film tells Luke’s story, concentrating on his relationship with Romina and his efforts to get some money to care for his child. As you watch Gosling, you become a part of his story and it is hard not to get involved with what everyone knows will not be a happy ending.
There is something insanely watchable about Ryan Gosling. It is easy to see why he is so immensely popular; even in his less successful films, you can’t take your eyes off him. His charisma just oozes like a young Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford. In “Gangster Squad”, his recent co-starring role with Josh Brolin was more odd and his Mickey Mouse voice was just distracting from his attempts to act and appear tough. But still, if you decide to spend your time and money to watch the film, you won’t take your eyes off the screen when Gosling is present. Better yet, Gosling seems to regularly alternate between big budget studio fare and more challenging independent films, giving him something to do as an actor while making him a household name among two different sets of moviegoers.
What I wasn’t expecting was the episodic narrative. It is an interesting idea, and has some benefits, but it isn’t handled very well here. Near the end of Luke’s story, Avery is introduced and we shift our focus to his life for the next portion of the film. This isn’t a commonly used narrative device, but when it works, it works because both actors are engaging, maybe for different reasons, but they both hold your attention.
I am a big fan of Bradley Cooper and have had a huge crush on him from the beginning. I even went to see “Hit and Run”, director Dax Shepard's (yes, DIRECTOR Dax Shepard's) car chase film, because of his supporting role. I have to say that’s the mark of a true fan. I paid for two of the twenty tickets sold for the screening I attended on opening weekend. But he doesn’t rise to the level of Gosling’s work in this film, which makes his part of the story less interesting and enjoyable.
When the attention shifts again to their two sons, fifteen years later, the story becomes a little more interesting simply because the actors playing their sons are less well-known and there is the feeling we might discover a great new talent, a new star-making performance. I don’t think either really gets to that level, but their work seems raw and holds our attention more.
This also points to a flaw in the director’s work. A more accomplished director would recognize how powerful Gosling’s performance is and try to balance Cooper’s work more. This isn’t always possible - even Scorsese failed to do this on “Gangs of New York”; Daniel Day-Lewis completely overshadows DiCaprio and everyone else in the movie – but it helps the overall film when the performances are on the same level. When they aren’t, it usually isn’t as noticeable. But the episodic narrative makes the imbalance more pronounced.
“Blue Valentine” is a remarkably good film. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is more ambitious and more flawed. Cianfrance uses a similar visual a few times in the film, but doesn’t use this same framing at the very end of the film, when he could and probable should. It seems like a missed opportunity to really send the message home and provide a moment of impact.
Cianfrance clearly has promise and may one day create a beautiful, memorable, haunting film. As the director makes more films, I have no doubt he will continue to add skills and his films will become stronger. He may make some missteps along the way, but he has already established himself as a filmmaker to watch and I will eagerly seek out each new film.