For the first two minutes of Derek Cianfrance’s (“Blue Valentine”) “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling, “Drive”) remains faceless. All we get is an unidentified hero moving forward. We don’t know who he is, what he’s about to do or why he’s about to do it. For the first and only time in the film, the consequences are irrelevant.
The Place Beyond The Pines
We move with Glanton, and there’s a certain thrill in the motion being meaningless.
As he pulls on a torn Metallica shirt, exhales a puff of cigarette smoke and dons his black motorcycle helmet, his face finally becomes visible. He stares at the Globe of Death, his eyes shifting between nonchalance and the calm that comes with routine. Death is beckoning, but there are no responsibilities, and again, the consequences are irrelevant.
The rest of the film is a different story. Drawn out, overdramatic, yet unquestionably epic, an obvious theme ties together the 140-minute affair: penalties. Glanton, upon learning that he’s the father of an illegitimate son with ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes, “Girl in Progress”), quits his job as a motorcycle stuntman and resorts to robbing banks with new-found partner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, “Animal Kingdom”).
But with criminality comes the dampening embrace of the law. A haphazard bank robbery is followed by a searing five-minute chase, and as the film introduces us to rookie officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”), it begins its steady descent into mediocrity.
As is visible in the excessive number of close-ups, faces take on a haunted look and seem genuinely affected by the impacts of what’s unfolding around them, but Cianfrance squanders any moral weight he’s able to develop by never really resolving his climax. It’s as if someone throws a lit match at a canister full of flammable gas only for it to fizzle out before ever making contact.
In short, nothing really happens.
To some degree, this can be expected from Cianfrance, who’s known for leaving audiences in a state of uncertainty, which isn’t always a bad thing. His previous film, “Blue Valentine,” was a poignant, sad commentary on life’s cruel way of stifling romance — specifically so because it chose to leave many of the questions it raised unanswered.
In “Pines,” Cianfrance tries hard to tie together the multiple themes guiding his sprawling, multi-generational narrative, but because it’s so damn big, any attempt to wring meaning out of the story feels half-assed and unsatisfying. Of the many vaguely broached topics of discussion, perhaps the most vexing is the clumsy approach taken when addressing the underlying impacts of fatherhood. What should be the ultimate representation of the ripples of our actions drifting into the future is just left hanging in the air, like an unnecessary formality. It’s as if someone actually thought that having one of the characters say, “I guess he’ll grow up without a father now” would be enough to tackle the whole daddy-problems dynamic.
As the film jumps forward 15 years and reintroduces us to the sons of our two protagonists, the reverberations never really become apparent. Sure, both the kids are fucked up, but we’re expected to assume the reasons why, and by making us do so, the script marginalizes the complexity of what led us there.
Surprisingly, none of the performances ever come close to veering in the same direction (unless, of course, you count any of the female leads, who were written off, sidelined and forgotten halfway through). Cooper does his best to channel the erratic explosiveness that got him so much praise for “Silver Linings Playbook,” but it’s obvious that this film belongs to Gosling.
His role will be compared to his work in “Drive,” and in many contexts, the comparison is valid. The crucial difference that’s so apparent in this movie is the dramatic shift in character he’s able to bring to the forefront when he discovers he has someone depending on him. Gosling measures a cornered sense of excitement in his demeanor whenever he’s close to his son — an excitement eerily mirrored in the moments before he realizes he won’t pull off his last bank robbery.
Eventually, it’s this same uncertainty, a diffidence that comes hand-in-hand with responsibility, that makes “The Place Beyond The Pines” a flawed but compelling movie. We’re still moving with it, but toward the end, there’s no thrill in the motion being meaningless.