Friday, April 05, 2013

Ambitious "The Place Beyond the Pines"'s Reach Exceeds its Grasp


Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan

Are the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons? It’s a question that clearly preoccupies director Derek Cianfrance in his new film, “The Place Beyond the Pines.” The follow-up to his superb debut feature, “Blue Valentine,” “Pines” offers up a gritty tale of two radically different men who cross paths by chance, and the far-reaching impact of their interaction on their families, particularly their sons. The result is an ambitious, fitfully compelling drama that struggles to tie its various threads together into a unified whole.

Set in Schenectady, New York (“Schenectady,” in case you didn’t know, being Mohawk for “the place beyond the pines”), the film falls into three parts. Part one focuses on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a professional motorcyclist and drifter who discovers that a fling from the last time he passed through Schenectady has produced an infant son. After the initial shock, he feels compelled to provide for both baby and mother (Eva Mendes) by robbing banks—a pursuit that eventually brings him into contact with a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who happens to have a son of his own. Part two switches gears to follow Avery, who’s confronted with both danger and opportunity, as well as a serious ethical choice, when he uncovers certain unsavory information about his fellow police officers. After Avery makes his choice, the movie skips ahead 15 years to show Luke’s and Avery’s sons playing out the final act of the drama that their fathers set in motion.

In interviews Cianfrance has made no bones of the fact that he deliberately designed the movie as a triptych. This isn’t the first time he’s played around with narrative structure: one of the most striking devices in “Blue Valentine” was its side-by-side pairing of scenes at the beginning and end of the protagonists’ relationship, showing in perfect tandem the progression towards their marriage and its eventual dissolution. Here, however, the sharp shifts in perspective and time feel choppy and disjointed—it’s like watching three separate, only tangentially connected movies, rather than one. At the same time, in crossing from one character’s consciousness to another, and then from one generation to another, the film seems to be striving for an epic, almost mythic quality that it doesn’t quite achieve. In the end, the crucial third act buckles under too much symbolic weight that seems forced rather than genuinely earned.

Part of the problem is that most of the movie’s punch is front-loaded in Luke’s story. Luke’s decisions may be dumb and destructive, but he projects an emotional energy that gradually dissipates once the spotlight shifts elsewhere. Gosling manages to sell his basic impulses as essentially pure, even innocent, and wrings unexpected poignancy out of their unfortunate consequences. Avery, by contrast, is smarter, cooler-headed and more calculating, and considerably more self-interested, though not bereft of conscience. As such, he’s intriguing enough to watch, but his most vulnerable, most emotionally exposed moments don’t have the same kick to the gut as Luke’s. Interestingly, the sons (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) reflect a similar imbalance. DeHaan, a rising star (“Chronicle,” “In Treatment”) who looks a little like a very young Leonardo di Caprio with a dash of Jesse Eisenberg, imbues the character of Luke’s son with a vaguely lost, unstable quality that plays effectively off the viewer’s knowledge of his family history, while Cohen seems miscast as Avery’s son and mostly comes off as a prick. Maybe that’s intentional, but it tends to lower the stakes in the denouement, which falls curiously flat as a result.

Despite these flaws, “The Place Beyond the Pines” confirms that Cianfrance remains a director worth watching. The film has plenty going for it: a willingness to subvert expectations; strong performances, especially by Gosling; riveting chase sequences, impressively shot by Sean Bobbitt, who’s also director Steve McQueen’s go-to guy (“Shame,” “Hunger”), as well as equally tense, if outwardly quieter, scenes involving Avery and his fellow cops. There are lovely moments of great tenderness and of surprising levity, especially in the first third of the film—Luke pensively watching his son get baptized, Luke feeding the baby ice cream, Luke’s friend Robin (a very good Ben Mendelsohn, dialing down the creepy vibe he brought to “Animal Kingdom”) playing with his dog—where the “Blue Valentine” DNA is most apparent. In short, there’s no lack of good or original elements in the movie; the real weakness is a lack of cohesion. What we’re left with is a stew made up of high quality ingredients that aren’t very well blended. Individual bites are tasty, but they don’t add up to a wholly satisfying meal.



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