“If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder”. So says gangly mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to his small-time crime protégé Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling). Glanton is a drifter and sometime-carnie who has previously eked out a living as a motorcycle stunt driver. Arriving back in the green suburbs of Schenectady, New York, Glanton discovers that a woman he had a brief tryst with, Romina (Eva Mendes), has had his child. He decides to stay in town, to see his son and insert himself back into their lives. In order to do so, he’ll need money. By chance he meets Robin, who shows him the ropes of a bank robbing scam, but gives him the aforementioned warning.
It’s a cool line. Maybe you’ve already heard it in the trailer for the movie. It’s just too bad that director Derek Cianfrance, who co-wrote the picture, hasn’t heeded the advice himself. Because The Place Beyond The Pines embodies these words. What we have here are 55 electric minutes of cinema followed by an hour and a half of complete drivel.
Like a stunt gone wrong, the movie fires on all cylinders, before taking a chance that doesn’t come off and slamming into the barriers. What remains is an aimless, limp wreck. One which ought to be put out of its misery but is left to linger on. And on. And on. It pains me to come down so hard on a film which, for a while, seemed set to become one of the highlights of the year. But ride like lightning and you’re gonna crash like thunder, and The Place Beyond The Pines is all the more disappointing for the greatness that is squandered.
Following a captivating opening tracking shot which follows Glanton through a carnival to perform his stunt routine, the film quickly establishes a devilish spirit. Cianfrance, who scored an indie hit with Blue Valentine and has more than enough ability to really fly as a filmmaker, conjures an intoxicating atmosphere of illicit danger around his star Gosling, and in this early stretch The Place Beyond The Pines evokes hot summer nights and, through Mike Patton’s superb and evocative score, a sad sense of impending doom.
Glanton, though sketched quickly and drawn from cliché, becomes a surprisingly complex creation. Not just the one-dimensional bad boy of so many films. And Gosling’s performance, whilst not showy, is believable and charismatic, even as the character rockets through some questionable choices. When Romina is provoked into screaming “you’re crazy!” at him, you can’t completely disagree.
But when a heist goes wrong and spills out into a pulse-pummeling street chase (superbly captured with rough hand-held energy), Cianfrance throws in a curveball, one which admirably wrong-foots the audience by switching protagonists, but begins the rot that quickly takes hold.
Enter Bradley Cooper as police officer Avery Cross. Now, there is nothing wrong with Cooper’s performance. He captures the nuances of a man struggling to come to terms with a traumatic event, and in the early stages of this mid-film about-turn he admirably anchors Cianfrance’s dangerous change in direction. But he can’t perform miracles. There’s no escaping the sudden feeling that T.P.B.T.P. was born out of a “what if this happens?” conversation. That Cianfrance has seen a twist to the usual trappings of the cop vs robber story and attempted to run with it before thinking the idea through. Because almost immediately T.P.B.T.P. becomes an aimless mess, half-heartedly re-enacting Serpico as Cross is coerced into a take-the-money morality crisis by his peers (and is it me or is Ray Liotta turning into William Shatner?).
And just when we’re starting to lose all faith that this is actually heading somewhere satisfying, we cut to black and the dreaded words “15 Years Later” appear on the screen. Anyone hoping for a neat coda that efficiently ties the increasingly ramshackle and disparate plot threads together will be pained to learn that at this point T.P.B.T.P. has nearly a full hour still to run.
Cianfrance makes another brave/foolish handover, this time to young actors Emory Cohen and Dane DeHann (Chronicle) and lo and behold, against all good sense The Place Beyond The Pines just… keeps… on… going. It’s frustrating because you can see what Cianfrance is trying to do… but he just doesn’t have the story for it. Nothing fits together the way you want it to, until the movie reminds you of the kid in class telling a story, starting every sentence with “and then…”. And then… And then… And then… You’re past caring. The Place Beyond The Pines limps to a close some two hours and twenty minutes after it roared into life. It feels twice that long. Finally, thankfully, it dies. Does it achieve that grace note you’ve been hoping for? No. An astonishing waste of time.
It’s maddening because there was so much promise here. Gosling, who supports so much of that first hour, is revealed to be the real deal. His absence in later sections of the film underlines his presence and importance. Likewise that heady mood of dangerous possibility lingers long in the mind as the listlessness sets in. Also worth praising is Ben Mendelsohn, who steals every scene he is in, and provides the only real joys in the film’s final hour.
Cianfrance deserves credit. He’s trying to build a conversation about morality and consequences, and there’s a sense here that he’s suggesting that a loss of integrity can pass almost like an infection, hopping from one man (or one generation) to another. He’s admirably trying to break the crime drama out of its limitations, trying to spring it from the box it comes packaged in. But it’s a trick that hasn’t worked this time. The story is simply broken. Where Blue Valentine was a taut weave of two strong narratives, The Place Beyond The Pines appears unruly and without shape at all. You could rename it Just A Bunch Of Stuff That Happens. By all means watch the first hour – its brilliant. Then get up, go home and pretend you’ve watched a very brief four star movie. You’ll be better off.
Disappointing in the extreme.