Some movies are so full of impact that you never want to see them again.
Such was the case with director Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 acclaimed indie, Blue Valentine. A meticulously detailed and unfiltered portrait of a dying marriage, the film provided some of the most brutally honest and heartbreaking depictions of falling out of love in contemporary American cinema. Aided by powerhouse performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine made audiences question their own beliefs about love, as the tragic story on the screen ruthlessly broke apart the illusion of marital bliss piece by bloody piece.
In Cianfrance’s follow-up, The Place Beyond The Pines, the director continues to deconstruct the American family—this time by shining a spotlight on the relationships between fathers and sons. A sweeping multi-generational drama that’s split into three acts over the course of fifteen years, The Place Beyond The Pines aims to explore how we’re shaped by the actions—and mainly the sins—of our parents. But unfortunately for Cianfrance, his latest offering is perhaps too ambitious for its own good.
In Blue Valentine, putting the two protagonists’ lives under a microscope allowed for a raw commentary on the impending disaster of settling down with the wrong person. Yet in The Place Beyond The Pines, Cianfrance increased the scale of his story so much that he wasn’t able to focus on the type of intimate details that made his preceding film pack such a powerful punch. Instead, the desire to showcase multiple characters within different generations forces the film to be guided by rushed plot points instead of by organic developments that inform the characters’ choices and provide evidence to bolster Cianfrance’s thesis.
The film opens with the story of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a high-wire motorcycle stunt performer who travels across the country as part of a carnival show. On a stopover in Schenectady, New York, Luke is reacquainted with Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he had a brief fling with during his stay in the same town the year before. When he discovers that during his absence Romina gave birth to his son, Luke decides to settle down in Schenectady in an attempt to provide for his newfound family.
Yet before he can even figure out how to begin to do this, his fantasy of building a life with Romina and their child is shattered. Romina has a new man who’s been raising baby Jason as his own, and Luke doesn’t even have an income to begin to compete. He’s then taken under the wing of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), an owner of a auto repair shop who also happens to be well versed in how to rob banks.
It doesn’t take long for Luke and Robin to partner up and combine their motorcycle getaway skills and experiences with felonies to start robbing banks. All of a sudden, Luke can afford to buy Jason a much-needed crib and to make grand promises to Romina. However, his new criminal identity also puts him on the radar of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a cop driven primarily by his desire to move up the ranks.
In a game-changing plot twist that ends part one of the film, Avery takes over as the star of The Place Beyond The Pines’ second act. It’s here that the film starts to stray from its excellent opening chapter and begins to lose focus. The evolution of Avery’s character is choppy: no longer the film’s moral compass, he is transformed into someone who can conveniently turn a blind eye to the corruption around him in order to get the results he wants. And when Avery decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and run for public office, The Place Beyond The Pines becomes a completely different—and far less interesting—film than it was at the beginning.
The movie picks up again a little in act three, when a 15-year-old Jason meets Avery’s son in school and they begin to cope with their daddy issues together. But as the connection between their fathers starts to become clearer, Jason and AJ’s friendship takes an abrupt nasty turn for the worst, as the two boys try desperately to make sense of their circumstances while co-existing.
While The Place Beyond The Pines is a thought-provoking film, its plot is too unconvincing and contradictory to allow its narrative any room to breathe. Cianfrance keeps swapping genre for genre, making the film at times a high-stakes heist movie, a political/crime thriller, a cop procedural, a revenge-driven rite-of-passage, and a family drama. Yet it never fully commits to any one of these forms.
For the most part, the actors in The Place Beyond The Pines serve as the film’s saving grace. Gosling, portraying the bad boy who is too corrupted to ever achieve good in an honest way, churns out another bravado performance that solidifies him as one of the finest actors of his generation. Cooper, who was just nominated for an Academy Award (Silver Linings Playbook), adds a layer of necessary charisma to the complex Avery—a character that likely could have been extremely unlikable in the hands of a less skilled actor. And the quiet desperation and fragile delivery of Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan (who’ll be seen next as Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) makes Jason into a convincingly psychologically stunted young man on the quest to self-discovery.
Unfortunately, the film’s great performances are offset by Eva Mendes, who never seems invested enough to truly understand Romina, and Ray Liotta, who’s crooked cop is a role he’s already played so many times that his effort seems phoned in at best.
For his next film, director Derek Cianfrance should consider returning to the intimate format of Blue Valentine. While simpler on paper, that film ended up having more layers and was far more complex in the way it challenged and resonated with its viewers. The Place Beyond The Pines, on the other hand, relies too heavily on its predictable finish to explain the necessary details that make up the journey. And while it’s certainly a story that’s innovative and bold, the movie has too many plot holes and rushed choices to make its execution merit the same umph as Cianfrance’s previous work.
Decent enough for a Netflix night in, The Place Beyond The Pines is not a movie anyone needs to rush to see.
The Place Beyond The Pines is now playing in select theaters.