For 45 minutes, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines offers up an intriguing character study, following motorcycle stunt rider Ryan Gosling’s slow descent into increasingly dirtier deeds. It’s quiet and understated; as in Drive, Gosling’s blank stare and downtrodden demeanor say more than a clunky mess of exposition ever could. Then a shocking moment changes everything, including the quality of the movie.
It’s difficult to discuss a film built around a twist, especially when said twist brings about a massive letdown. Suffice it to say that my first thought was of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, except a lot more boring. For whatever reason, Pines starts to veer in new directions, pretending all the while that the story’s bobs and weaves are natural and logical. It’s ambitious in its waywardness, but without any substance. Are we examining the seedy undercurrent of life in a small town? Is it meant to be a Crash-type situation, where unrelated people come together in jarring ways?
There’s no apparent rhyme or reason. Anything that makes sense feels lazy and tacked-on, as if it’s there because that’s what happens in movies.
For example, Bradley Cooper trudges forward on his Take Me Seriously Tour as the son of a judge who’s trying to make his way as a cop in a corrupt district. Sound familiar? Would it blow your mind if I told you that he also went to law school, and that makes him not only smarter than the other cops but also a whole lot more honest?
It’s as if Cianfrance had a Gosling-themed mini-movie in mind and then realized he had to fill 100 more minutes, so he slapped a bunch of clichés together and hired great actors and actresses to handle nothing parts.
Ray Liotta shines in his one big scene as Cooper’s law-enforcement superior who interrupts a family dinner … and then sort of disappears. Rose Byrne seems like she’ll be relevant in a few key moments as Cooper’s conflicted wife (my girlfriend: “Psst. It’s the girl fromBridesmaids!”) … but then she sort of fades away, too. Eva Mendes is more than capable as the mother of Gosling’s child, but then the movie doesn’t need her anymore either.
Nothing feels right or consequential after the first 45 minutes. It becomes a big meaningless void that tries in vain to tie everything together, with no reason to stay interested besides the $12 you paid for a ticket.
And when the final third of the movie begins, you can tell with glaring certainty that it’s all about to be wrapped up in a neat little package. Characters are introduced and forced together with almost embarrassing clumsiness; you can see events unfolding from a mile away. This isn’t always a bad thing (there are only so many ways to tell a story) but by the end every additional scene feels like a twist of the metaphorical knife. Just when you think you’re out, nope, here’s the kid from Chronicle stealing Oxycontin from a pharmacy.
Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine was brilliant because it examined a crumbling marriage in unflinching detail. It was hard to watch, but only because it was so honest and sincere. A Place Beyond the Pines is also hard to watch, but for very different reasons.