Derek Cianfrance’s third fiction feature, the follow-up to the well-received “Blue Valentine,” is certainly ambitious, a multi-generational saga of fathers and sons with distinctly fatalistic, tragic overtones. But the reach of “The Place Beyond the Pines” exceeds its grasp, and the result is intermittently powerful but ultimately disappointing.
The title is an English translation of Schenectady, New York, where the story is set, and what Cianfrance constructs is a three-act narrative that shifts focus from character to character in a fashion many viewers will find frustrating. The initial segment focuses on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist in a traveling show that returns to the city on its regular tour. There he encounters Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he’d had a typically brief fling on the last circuit. He discovers that she has an infant son—his, of course. And he decides to end his rootless existence and try to be a father to the boy, even though Romina is living with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who’s protective of her and the child.
Luke now has no way of earning a living, however, so he falls in with a bank-robbing scheme suggested by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), the low-life mechanic he takes a room with. Predictably, after some early success their scheme—which involves Luke performing the heist, jumping on his cycle and riding in into the back of a truck Robin’s ready to drive off in—falls apart, and Luke finds himself desperately trying to get away while rookie patrolman Avery (Bradley Cooper) I hot pursuit. Luke winds up shot to death by the young cop after breaking into a house and briefly holding a woman and her son prisoner.
The focus of the picture now shifts to Avery, who falls in with Deluca (Ray Liotta), a veteran on the force who introduces him to the dark side by forcing Romina to turn over to him and his crew the stash of money Luke had left behind for his son. But Avery—who’s hardly as callow as he initially seems—uses the clout of his ex-judge father (Harris Yulin) not only to bring down the gang of corrupt cops but to take advantage of his celebrity to turn to politics.
Fifteen years later, Avery’s running for governor, but at home his life is complicated by the arrival of his son AJ (Emory Cohen), who’s shunted off to him by his ex-wife (Rose Byrne). A surly, arrogant kid who’s also a drug user, AJ befriends his new classmate Jason, Luke’s son who’s been raised by Romina and Kofi. AJ takes advantage of the tense, fragile kid and gets him into trouble by enlisting him in an effort to buy drugs. When that leads Avery to recognize who Jason is, he steps in to keep the two boys apart, but his efforts fail; meanwhile Jason learns about his real father, and decides to deal his long-ago loss by taking aim at AJ and Avery.
The schematic character of this rather contrived scenario is evident. It’s reminiscent of a lot of earlier films, including “Home from the Hill,” Vincente Minnelli’s 1960 adaptation of William Humphrey’s novel, which treats some similar themes. But the script doesn’t manage to tie the various threads together with much success, and Cianfrance’s picture remains, despite its considerable length, more a blueprint than a well-wrought drama.
The film also becomes less effective as it goes along. The best portion is certainly the first, to which Gosling brings his familiar slow-burning intensity and Mendelsohn a convincing yokel appeal. When the focus shifts to Avery, the quality level drops, not only because Cooper doesn’t provide much character depth but because the entire crooked-cop subplot, complete with Liotta doing his standard turn as a steely-eyed villain, feels tired. The third act boasts an impressive turn by DeHaan, but it’s undermined by Cohen’s weak performance, which has an amateurish feel. Mendes, though underused, nonetheless gives the film some much-needed warmth—which can’t be said for Byrne, who’s pretty much wasted.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” is technically competent, with cinematography by Sean Bobbitt that meshes almost classic compositions with some jittery interludes and manages some impressive tracking shots. But overall the look of the picture isn’t as distinctive as one might hope.
This is one of those films that one has to respect. It raises intriguing questions about human relationships, and fashions some powerful characters. But in the end it fails to overcome its highly literary construction and its downward dramatic arc.