The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin
How long is The Place Beyond the Pines? 140 minutes.
What is The Place Beyond the Pines rated? R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference.
Terrific Trees, Forgotten Forest
A motorcyclist takes to robbing banks to support his illegitimate son. A rookie cop contends with personal and professional issues, such as guilt and corruption. And, 15 years later, the sins of the fathers weight heavily on their sons. All three stories are directly connected in The Place Beyond The Pines, writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine.
Ambitious to a fault, Pines is a failed attempt at an generation-spanning epic revolving around outlaw Luke (a terrific Ryan Gosling), officer Avery (Bradley Cooper, even better here than in Silver Linings Playbook), and their sons from 15 years hence Jason (the underrated Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Smash‘s Emory Cohen, who is also the performance weak-link). Welcome-presence actors such as Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, and Ben Mendelsohn round out the cast as associates of Luke and Avery.
With their uniformly good writing, directing, and acting, any or all of these stories could have sufficed as a feature on their own. Each vignette-style segment works as a compelling, short character drama that one could easily imagine being fleshed out into something more significant. The credit for this goes primarily to Cianfrance. As a filmmaker, he definitely understands and respects the human element in his stories. There are moments throughout that remind you how great it can be to just watch a character even when they aren’t doing anything that furthers the plot or their development. As with his previous film, Cianfrance shows an amazing adeptness at utilizing private moments to allow his characters to become humans. As a director, he provides a natural feel to the proceedings; his characters live in an unglamorous and slightly grungy world, a factor that also made Blue Valentine feel so honest.
Every story understands how to keep an intense focus on its own main character. Luke’s segment probably works the best in this fashion as a short film. Avery’s segment has a few dangling plot threads, but it had an interesting enough main character that a longer running time could have really allowed the film to play off his drama, guilt, and doubt. AJ and Jason’s segment needed the greatest amount of gestation and could have most easily been excised. Jumping ahead 15 years when the other two segments happened within months of one another just to play off an obvious father/son dynamic came across as a bit trite. It wasn’t a total waste, but it definitely stuck out the most, especially when compared to the first two superior parts. Nonetheless, despite starting from a flawed concept, Cianfrance still executed it well, and maybe more time spent with the young characters would have improved upon its rushed quality.
Despite all of these good elements, the movie ends up significantly less than the sum of its easily discernible parts. Linking these pieces is easy in a narrative sense, but it becomes almost too easy and too obvious thematically. Both fathers have one-year-old children! The son has a bike like his father! Family is important! Even though they come from different sides of the law, they have similarities! Although Cianfrance doesn’t make the film as heavy handed as it could have been, it still lacks the weight to hit the necessary emotional buttons. This leads to a feeling of disconnect between the three segments, as though the filmmaker is forcing them to fit his vision rather than it occurring organically.
Oddly enough, it is Cianfrance’s talent at intimacy that might be Pines‘s biggest problem. With rare exception (Magnolia being the most notable one), I find films about the cosmic intertwining of lives weak. But the genre understands that this element needs to be somewhat at the forefront; it should be a thread that runs throughout every sequence. To take off on the film’s title, Cianfrance misses the forest for the trees. Taken alone, each piece is more than decent. But by making each story stand alone so successfully with a definitive beginning and a definitive ending, they cannot congeal into a single, emotionally satisfying experience. The Place Beyond The Pines ends up not being a 140 minute movie, but rather three 45 minutes ones struggling to inject meaning into the big picture.