Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine follow up is ambitious but also frustrating.
The moment The Place Beyond the Pines started I was giddy. The reason: director Derek Cianfrance decided to open the film with an extended tracking shot. Love those. We follow a bleached-blond guy with tattoos up and down his arms as he makes his way through a carnival crowd, arriving at the main tent containing the hundreds of spectators that have paid to see some death-defying stunts. The tracking shot is similar to what Darren Aronofsky incorporated with his film The Wrestler and in both cases they set up stories involving men who take high risks. Both perform in carnival acts to an extent in professions that leave their lives and bodies in shambles.
However in the case of Cianfrance’s film, it evolves beyond the scope of a singular daredevil, as we are offered two more acts which more or less presents us a tale about how the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. A lot of what happens later on in the story depends on consequence, and much of the last act relies heavily on coincidence. The narrative offers three stories but they are interrelated and told with straightforwardness; no need to confuse audiences with vivid flashbacks as a means to piece it all together.
Even with one film under his belt – the incredible Blue Valentine, which depicts the dissolution of a marriage – Cianfrance has quickly shown himself to be an actor’s director. He embraces their courageousness in doing things that he’s too cowardly to do himself. So when an actor of Ryan Gosling’s stature suggests that his character should have a face tattoo along his left eye (a dagger with dripping blood), Cianfrance is game only for the fact that he trusts Gosling’s judgment. Then again, Gosling admitted to the director on the first day of shooting Pines that maybe he was too overzealous when it came to the face tattoo. It’s those types of regrets that play into his character, and the film as a whole.
The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious film about the pivotal moments that define the lives of those who question how they are going to makes ends meet. The problem is that after a terrific first act the story sort of deflates when it should be building on opening momentum, instead. That would explain the considerable 140-minute length. Still, the acting is so strong for the first two acts that it’s easy to forgive Cianfrance’s slip up when it came to the shifting narratives, as we see the main character change from Chapter One to Chapter Two. As for the leads in the final segment, they aren’t on par with a pair of Oscar-nominated actors.
Ryan Gosling is the carnival performer Luke Glanton, a motorcycle daredevil who, along with two other riders, zips around and upside down inside a metal cage, to the exultations of a paid attendance as he defies gravity and common sense. Satisfied with his nomadic lifestyle working the carnival circuit going from town to town, his life is turned inside out when he learns he fathered a child as the result of a brief dalliance with Schenectady waitress Romina (Eva Mendes). Remembering his own childhood and the father who was never there, Luke makes the commitment to be an active participant in caring for his son. Only he doesn’t know how. Newly unemployed and with a limited skill set, Luke gets a job with a local mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn), a man who teaches him that his motorcycle skills offers him more lucrative ways at being a family provider. Better to get rich quick than be a poor grease monkey.
Rookie officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is ambitious and as strait-laced as they come. A law grad who decided he wanted to join the rank and file of Schenectady’s Finest to fight injustice, rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as a New York State judge, he finds himself in a situation where he is branded a hero but can’t deal with the consequences. As someone who learns the reality of wearing the badge by dealing with a network of corrupt cops, Avery is put into a situation where his own conscience comes into play.
High school friendships happen in different ways but for Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) it comes as the result of Jason’s drug-dealing connections and AJ’s expendable income. Of the two, Jason is the outsider and AJ is the life of the party. Jason is AJ’s shadow and as his number two reaps the rewards of such a friendship. However both share a secret that neither is aware.
The risk-taking nature of Luke provides us with a compelling powder keg of a first segment. A man of desperation, Luke relies on his daredevil instincts in hopes of giving his son a better life than he had. As he tells Romina, “My father was never around and look how I turned out.” It leads to a shocking turn that definitely took me by surprise. Ryan Gosling’s Luke has deliberate mannerisms and speaks quietly; much like his nameless character from Drive. But once he lets loose be prepared for fireworks.
Bradley Cooper may have shared top billing with Gosling, but the second-best character may just be Eva Mendes. Having never had that Pretty Woman-esque breakout to be a mega star, it looks like Mendes has taken to venturing well outside her comfort zone. Pines follows her appearance in the Leos Carax mind-bending film Holy Motors. Under Cianfrance’s direction she delivers some strong work alongside Gosling. Seeing her frustration bubble in a few scenes it’s interesting to note that she stormed off set one time, tired of Cianfrance constantly pushing her buttons as an actress, not just a pretty face in another movie.
Pines takes a great big detour when Bradley Cooper’s and Ryan Gosling’s characters cross paths, which allows us passage into a world of crooked cops and moral dilemmas. Ray Liotta plays one of the crooked officers and it is again typecasting. Hard to argue; when the script calls for a scene-chewing shifty fellow, the once goodfella is on the short list.
As ambitious as The Place Beyond the Pines is, it can’t hold on to greatness all the way through. The final act dilutes the entire film. Therein lies the frustration. It’s just not up to snuff what Derek Cianfrance has created. Not helping matters is its sluggish pace. It’s worth applauding what Cianfrance wants to accomplish with his closure of the epic drama. Too bad his reach for greatness couldn’t match the intensity he gave us for the first ninety minutes.
Director: Derek Cianfrance Notable Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne Writer(s): Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!