The title of Derek Cianfrance’s new film is a translation of Schenectady, a Mohawk term, and the name of the city in eastern New York state where this 140-minute tripartite crime drama unfolds. So even in his choice of title, Cianfrance is working to invoke a large historical canvas. The Place Beyond the Pines has a chronology that begins in the 1980s. Its style, atmospheres and themes draw upon certain tendencies in American movies of both the 1940s and the 1970s. Its multiple protagonists span generations, racial backgrounds, and class. Its setting feels indifferent to the 21st century. The film is ambitious, and its ambitions, along with its largely blue-collar milieu and Cianfrance’s obvious craftsmanship are the elements I admire most. But like Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines overreaches in a way that, perhaps, betrays its author’s naïveté. Emotions burgeon and spill over, and as they spill over they feel less genuine, less invested with real experience.
In the first section, stunt biker “Handsome” Luke (Ryan Gosling, very compelling), a sort of poor man’s Evel Knievel, sloppily dressed, beach-bum-bottle-blonde, and covered in tats, turns up with a traveling carnival in Schenectady, where a year earlier he’d had a fling with Romina, a local waitress (Eva Mendes, mostly stuck playing an exhausted victim). Luke learns that that fling resulted in progeny, and his cool, cool heart begins to ache. He quits the carnival and determines to be a dad to little Jason and a partner to Romina—despite the fact that she’s got a boyfriend, who seems very nice and a good provider. Luke meets Robin, a backwoods mechanic and occasional bank-robber, played by Ben Mendelsohn, a very good actor from Australia, and one to watch out for; he was last seen looking even greasier in Killing Me Softly. Robin is the film’s most interesting character, partly because, unlike most of the other characters, his intentions aren’t overstated. (Robin nevertheless has the film’s most thudding line: “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”) One suspects that lonesome Robin’s in love with Luke. He gives him a bed, a job, and what turns out to be a really bad idea: You need money to win that family of yours, don’t you? Let’s utilize your bike skills and rob a few banks. Complications ensue.
The second section follows Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop and son to a former state supreme court judge. Avery’s whole life changes in the time it takes to pull a trigger. It changes even more in the time it takes him to not refuse a bribe from a coven of corrupt cops helmed by Ray Liotta, our go-to guy for intimidating slime (see, once again, Killing Me Softly). Like Luke, Avery’s got a little boy, and when The Place Beyond the Pines enters its home stretch Luke and Avery’s boys will emerge to fill the narrative foreground, where they’re visited by the sins of their fathers, et cetera, et cetera. This final section loses much of the character development and attention to place that helped make the preceding 105 minutes awkward but absorbing. Forced plot mechanics take hold. The film meanders toward a resolution that feels flimsier with every climax.
Cianfrance is not lacking for audiovisual fluency. He’s good with portentous dissolves, very good at weaving evocative stray images together under the longer speeches (see the bit with Robin shooing geese for a nice example of this). But, somewhere in the grand scheming, his judgment with regards to emotional verisimilitude and narrative concision seems to falter. He may have it in him to make a truly great movie—there are stunning, even heartbreaking moments in both this and Valentine—but in order to achieve this he may have to stop trying so damned hard to make a Truly Great Movie.