The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie, but it arrives with the unreasonable expectations of a savior. Not only does it star the so-hot-right-now Bradley Cooper and the perpetually-hot Ryan Gosling, but the film is being released in the dregs of a particularly poor winter for cinema. Need I count the ways that Hollywood has failed us of late? The Last Stand, A Good Day to Die Hard, Bullet to the Head, Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz: The Great and Powerful. But Pines has all the signs of good, satisfying cinema – a promising young director, top-notch acting talent, and an eccentric, small-town setting. The trailer for the film was like the green light across from Gatsby’s house, something to gaze at in wonder and anticipation of a brighter future but ultimately better off viewed from a distance.
Pines has all the ambition to fulfill those dreams but not the insight. It searches deeply for meaning in its generation-spanning story of cops, robbers, fathers and sons, and uses an artistically ambitious structure. The film is a triptych with three distinct, interlocking sections – a structure that inherently subverts the conventions of commercial filmmaking, in which we usually follow one protagonist through his journey. But only one of the film’s three acts – and one of its stars – really sings, and the flashy structural choices hide a surprisingly empty center. It has to be a triptych because there is not enough there for a single story.
The first section belongs to Luke (Ryan Gosling), a charismatic rebel type who drives a motorcycle for the circus. The long, single-take opening shot tracks him from his holding tent, through the circus, and into the sphere that he and two other riders simultaneously drive in. It’s a masterfully executed sequence that connects us deeply to his character, but it’s also derivative of many previous tracking shots, including, most famously, Goodfellas, which director Derek Cianfrance and his writers cite as a major influence.
Later that first evening, Luke runs into an old flame, discovers he has a one-year-old son, and decides to stick around and try to be part of his son’s life. The filmmakers paint Luke in broad strokes, never explaining much about his past except that his own father wasn’t around to raise him. Of course, you don’t have to explain much when you’ve got Ryan Gosling. The young actor can do inner anguish without breaking a sweat, and a scene in which Luke cries from the back pew while watching his son’s christening conveys a lifetime spent on the fringes of society.
This opening third is a perfect marriage of character and setting, as the poor, run-down upstate New York town of Schenectady (of which the film’s title is the Iroquois translation) mirrors the hopelessness of Luke’s situation. There are no markers telling the audience what era the story is set in, and we are never quite sure whether the poor societal conditions represented on screen are the results of our current economy or simply an older era. Cianfrance has described the town as “a smaller version of Detroit,” and the extreme poverty is central to both the plot and the mood.
It feels slightly rote when Luke turns to a life of crime to support his family, but Gosling’s ability to communicate his inner life with just a glance brings a singular quality to what could otherwise have been a stock character. Gosling has become such a good actor that he can actually derail a movie, and that’s what happens here. It’s like this: when he sinks his teeth into a character, it’s impossible to look away. But when he’s off screen – as he is in much of Pines‘s second half – everything else suffers in comparison. Bradley Cooper makes little impression in his depiction of Avery Cross, a rookie cop with an infant son who becomes a local hero after a heroic moment in the line of duty. When Cross stumbles upon corruption in the local force and is forced to choose sides, Cooper is asked to display some anguish of his own. A fine comic actor, Cooper has not yet proved he is right for leading dramatic work, and nothing he does here settles the issue in his favor.
Just when we are getting settled in with Cross, however, the film jumps ahead 15 years and Cross reappears (looking almost exactly like Gavin Newsom) as a candidate for Attorney General. He is only a supporting player in this third; our last protagonists are his son A.J., a teenager with a nose for trouble, and A.J.’s new friend at school, who has more than a passing resemblance to Luke. The kids are strong actors and well-cast – Emory Cohen as A.J. is annoying in just the right way – but it is hard to invest much in characters that we meet for the first time so far into the movie.
It seems like the best example of what Pines is trying to achieve would be Cloud Atlas, which tracks the reverberations of acts of cruelty and kindness over centuries and oceans. Pines is less ambitious in scope and structure, but it needs to demonstrate causality between the sins of the father and the mistakes of the child, and it never really does. What happened in those 15 years to turn Cross into an oily politician and his son into a thug? That’s the movie I wanted to see.
Instead, we get the kind of high-concept ideas that probably sounded great in the writer’s room. Pines can be admired for its grand ambitions, but when a film tries this hard for profundity, its failures are usually easier to spot and impossible to ignore. The film never recovers from its biggest mistake – abandoning its most charismatic character halfway through. Give credit to Cianfrance for creating a film that requires scrutiny, but we don’t award degree-of-difficulty points unless they stick the landing.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue