Sometimes a film has such grand ambitions, such incredible plans on a grand scale, that it forgets about doing the small things to make it all work. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is that kind of movie with director Derek Cianfrance aiming to tell an anthology of stories, all linked together, that deals with family values and the importance of father figures and quite a few other concepts that only end up half-baked in within the film’s scope. However, in attempting to do so, Cianfrance populates two of his three connected stories with uninteresting characters I quickly lost interest... that might not be so bad if the first act wasn’t the best the film had to offer, giving you a sense that THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES peaks way too early, and, as a result, offers up what feels like far lesser stories to follow. In essence, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES begins and ends with Ryan Gosling - not the first time Cianfrance has captured an incredible performance of his, as I was a big fan of their work together on BLUE VALENTINE - because nothing that follows his story holds a candle to those initial 45 minutes.
Gosling stars as Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman for the traveling fair. When he rides into Schenectady for its annual dates and visits his fling from the previous year (Eva Mendes), he learns that when he left town the last time around, he left behind a woman that was newly pregnant and now he has a baby boy. Quite apparent that he didn’t have much of a father in his life, Luke decides to stick around and do the right thing by being a dad as best as he can be... but now with no job and another guy who’s been putting in his time to building this family as his own, Luke is going to have to figure out how to make this a viable arrangement with him being in his son’s life. He wants to provide for Mendes’ Rowina and his boy, and minimum wage isn’t going to cut it. Through a chance encounter and what becomes a kindred partnership with Ben Mendelsohn’s Robin, he’s off using his skills as an incredible motorcycle driver to rob banks, and, in trying to do the right thing, he’s doing all the wrong things.
What makes Gosling’s character so intriguing is that as charming as he is, Luke never really had a chance... and it’s part of that tragedy that makes him so compelling. You want to root for Luke. You want him to get his life on track. You want him to step up and be a dad. You want him to be a responsible adult, if only because it means doing right by his son, but his inability to make any semblance of a good choice makes him quite heartbreaking to watch. No reasonable, rational person would ever contend that robbing a bank is the right way to take care of your family or the right example to set for your kid... but Luke can justify it in his own mind, because he doesn’t know of any other way. Gosling’s likeability helps you invest in Luke, no matter how much of a lost cause he appears to be, which only then serves to hit you harder the deeper into trouble he gets. Gosling has been doing a lot of good work lately as it is, but, when he and Cianfrance join forces, it’s something special as it is once again here.
The rest of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is severely lacking though, as the film shifts to a tale of Bradley Cooper’s smart and ambitious cop Avery Cross who uses his hero status in taking down a perpetrator and being wounded in the line of duty to propel his career ahead, but only after dealing with a set of dirty cops led by Ray Liotta. It really was at the introduction of the crooked police that I begun checking out of PINES, thinking to myself, “Dirty cops...? Again...?” It’s as if they don’t even belong in this movie, and yet somehow here they are, derailing a tremendous first act with their cliched participation. Cooper plays Cross as this optimistic officer who just wants to help people and see justice done, so, in seeing what’s going on within his department, his good nature can’t stand by and watch this type of corruption plague the very institution he would like to see upheld with some sort of integrity. However, the old questions of who can he go to, who can he tell, who can he trust just undermine the deeper emotional issues Cross is wrestling with, as he learns more and more about the incident he was involved in. To trump something much more meaningful with something so silly is something PINES never recovered from for me. The second act of PINES never comes close to having the same heft as the foundation laid by Gosling, and while it could be excused as a lull, the third act further exemplifies the downward trend of the movie.
It’s there that we see the younger Glanton and Cross generations more grown up, 15 years older than we left them at the end of the previous two acts, and while Dane DeHaan is able to handle his half of the story as Jason Glanton, learning the truth of his father’s dark past, Emory Cohen absolutely kneecaps what he’s supposed to bring to the table as the incredibly annoying AJ Cross. Every moment spent with his portrayal of Cooper’s son is a moment left wishing birth control would have been used all those years ago on the night this kid was conceived. This is a truly grating character that is difficult to watch, because you don’t care to know anything about him or anything that might happen to him. If it doesn’t involve you having the ability to punch him in the face in order to make him shut up, there’s no reason for taking any further interest. It’s a shame, because DeHaan is working really hard to make this work, but Cohen’s performance is terrible... and the fact that the movie feels as if it’s been playing forever by this point certainly isn’t helping. One more minute longer with THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES would have been just too long... and I said that about 45 minutes into the film.
If Cianfrance would have shot THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES as a short film based entirely on the problems of Gosling’s Luke Glanton, he would have had something quite good on his hands, but as it is, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES feels so meandering for so long that not only does it lose track of what it’s trying to say, by the end, you don’t really care much for whatever it was in the first place. I respect Cianfrance aiming to go big on this picture, but he’s not able to bring the goods as needed for all three stories. One out of three doesn’t quite cut it.
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