Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (Cianfrance, 2012)

Still from the movie The Place Beyond the Pines

I’ve finally gotten around to watching The Place Beyond the Pines, another movie from ilovewongkarwai’s Top Ten of 2013 list, which I’ve slowly been picking away at. Director/screenwriter Derek Cianfrance and actor Ryan Gosling (who bear a striking physical resemblance to each other) last teamed up in the 2010 Sundance favorite Blue Valentine (also starring Michelle Williams). Had I know Cianfrance was involved with this movie, my expectations might have been even higher. Good thing I didn’t know.

Also starring are Bradley Cooper and vixen Eva Mendes, with support from Dane DeHaan (last mentioned on this blog for his role in Life After Beth) and my new pal, Oakland-born Mahershala Ali (who plays Remy Danton on House of Cards and who has a part in the upcoming Hunger Games: Mockingjay). One might suggest that the city of Schenectady, NY, is another character, considering its central role in the film. After all, “the place beyond the pines” is a rough translation of the Mohawk-originated city name.

The three-act Pines features Luke (Gosling), a motorcyclist in a traveling circus, who discovers on a stop through Schenectady that he has a son with a former lover, Romina (Mendes). Quitting his circus job, Luke hopes to stick around and re-insert himself in the lives of Romina and their baby, though the former is torn between his charm and her own skepticism that he can provide for their family, especially beyond the capabilities of her current boyfriend Kofi (Ali). Working minimum wage as a mechanic hardly impresses baby’s mama, so Luke turns to armed bank robbery, which he then becomes addicted to, throwing all caution to the wind. Bradley Cooper eventually appears as one of the cops chasing Luke. So goes Act 1.

This film is ultimately about fathers and sons: the unreadable, unknowable call of blood and generations. ilovewongkarwai called it “of Greek tragedy proportion[s].” Yes, there is that. In fact, it is only when you look at it through a tragedian’s lens that some of the dramatic over-stepping is at least a little forgivable. There might as well have been a keening choir in the background. But how was it that all the subtlety and truth of Blue Valentine never made its way into The Place Beyond the Pines? They are altogether different types of films, of course, but the answer might lie in Cianfrance’s scriptwriting partner, Schenectady native Ben Coccio, whose only former feature-length film involvement was his little-known movies Zero Day and the extremely independent Beginner (watch the trailer!). According to an interview with Cianfrance, Coccio wrote most of the script while Cianfrance made Blue Valentine; Cianfrance’s role seemed to be more engaged editor than idea originator–at least at the start.

The acting is fine: not superb, but not lacking, either. Bradley Cooper is his usual smarmy self. The fault of the film must be in how it all hangs together. This is a crime drama that wants to be a character drama, but the characters stretch our ability to suspend disbelief nearly to the breaking point. Why would they be so rash and vindictive and violent? Is it just…in their blood? And then the ending is terribly cheesy and laughable. My judgment on The Place Beyond the Pines? Skippable.