Monday, May 13, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

Grade: 60/B-

Derek Cianfrance showed with Blue Valentine that he had a gift for capturing startling intimacy and claustrophobia. Sprawling generation-spanning histories are another matter entirely. Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, The Place Beyond the Pines, shows many of the same strengths as his earlier film, but it also amplifies his greatest weaknesses. What’s left is an often engaging film that never quite matches his earlier film’s gut-punch immediacy.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman who travels across the country in state fairs. When he learns that a former one-night stand (Eva Mendes) from Schenectady, New York has given birth to his son, he takes up armed robbery as a way to support his new family. At a key moment in his life, he comes into contact with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious, educated cop dealing with police corruption in his unit. Their choices will affect their sons, who may be doomed to repeat the sins of their fathers.

Give Cianfrance points for ambition. Where Blue Valentine made a small-scale tale of divorce feel universal, The Place Beyond the Pines tries to tell a sweeping tale of American men on both sides of the law and how families are doomed to repeat the past, almost like a naturalistic version of Heat mixed with East of Eden. Cianfrance also succeeds in getting strong performances from most of the major players, from Ben Mendelsohn as Gosling’s partner in crime to Dane DeHaan as an introverted kid shaped by his father’s choices (Emory Cohen as a privileged burnout is a bit too distracting, though). The Place Beyond the Pines also shows that Cianfrance has a skill directing set-pieces, with a key scene between Gosling and Cooper being a particular standout.

The problem is that the film is more successful on a moment-to-moment basis than as a whole. Like Blue Valentine, the film has an ambitious structure, but where the earlier film made its non-chronological mix of the highs and lows of a relationship moving, The Place Beyond the Pines can’t quite connect the dots. The first third, which largely follows Gosling, is a rather gripping noir featuring another fine turn from the actor, who mixes the stillness of his turn in Drive with the blue collar desperation of his work in Blue Valentine. The second section is a much more familiar feeling cop drama, but it’s aided by remarkably subtle performance by Cooper as a man who’s equal parts decent and self-righteous. But these feel like completely different movies rather than parts of a greater whole, and that feeling is amplified by an audacious final third that feels too schematic and strains for profundity. Just because a film is about how the past affects the present doesn’t mean the present needs to feel predetermined.
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