Writer-director Derek Cianfrance made a big splash in 2010 with Blue Valentine, a gritty, emotionally gruelling record of a protracted relationship breakdown, featuring superb lead turns from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. In his ambitious, deeply-flawed follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance re-teams with Gosling and again engages with his sensitive side. This time, however, his focus falls upon the relationship between fathers and sons.
Set in and around the leafy environs of Schenectady in upstate N.Y., Place (which employs a tripartite structure) begins with the story of daredevil stunt motorcyclist Luke Glanton (Gosling), a muscled badboy with a murky past, a cute tear tattoo underneath his left eye, and a recently-discovered infant son with ex-paramour Romina (Eva Mendes). Short on cash, and keen to provide for his sprog, he hooks up (hilariously conveniently) with a friendly backwoods crim (Ben Mendehlson), who, in Karate Kid-turbo montage fashion, takes him under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the bank-robbing trade. One day, his activities draw the attention of idealistic young cop (Bradley Cooper) and the course of their lives is altered irrevocably, leading to the second of the film’s three complementary stories. It would be wrong to go into too much plot detail here for fear of spoilers, but the remainder of Place – using generic cop and teen drama templates – explicitly broaches themes of generational conflict and the sins of fathers.
Cianfrance’s overplotted and overdetermined film – though no doubt coming from a place of heartfelt good intention – is regrettably cloaked in a tone of maudlin, macho self-indulgence, and replete with toe-curling dialogue at every turn (If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder!”). The director clearly sees Glanton as some kind of bruised angel; sadly, Gosling is unable to render this backstory-free character as anything other than a shrill, petulant irritant, ruinously endemic of the film’s self-importance. Even more regrettable is the waste of Mendes, an actress who rarely gets the chance to display her talent. Here was a tailor-made leading role (she’s the constant presence across the film’s three stories), but instead she’s limited to teary reaction-shots and the occasional hissy-fit. But, hey, this is a man’s world, right?
That said, The Place Beyond the Pines is not a complete bust. It looks fantastic, with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt making rich, colourful use of a panoply of unusual locations. There are a handful of thrillingly captured action sequences, while the opening shot (despite its hand-playing, subjective hero-worship of a half-naked Gosling) is a stunning coup de théâtre; a tense, thrilling tracking shot of the highest order – it might even be the film’s best moment. Bradley Cooper is also fantastic; tough, vulnerable and sympathetic, even if his character’s arc is fundamentally unconvincing.
But these handful of minor delights are not enough to rescue a soapy, self-regarding work which never comes to terms with its own needlessly imposing structure. What could have been three separate, intimate dramas (and we know Cianfrance can deliver those) ends up as one frustratingly unwieldy and pointlessly bloated would-be epic. In aiming so high, Cianfrance has proven to be his own worst enemy.
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