place beyond the pines

“Everything is connected” movies, which have practically become their own genre in the last decade or so, seem genetically predisposed for heavy-handedness. The cast is always large, the running time is always long, and the tone is usually dead serious. At their best (Magnolia, Short Cuts) these films successfully capture the globalization zeitgeist, combining mysticism with hypermodern chaos. Still, on behalf of everyone who sat through Crash or Cloud Atlas, it’s time for directors to try something new.

It’s a refreshing surprise, then, to watch Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines.  Like Magnolia or Crash, the film is a meditation on the far-reaching effects our choices have on strangers and loved ones alike. But where Paul Haggis felt the need to hammer home his point with armies of weak actors (Ludacris?  Brendan Frasier?), Cianfrance chooses to focus on the lives of two small families over the course of fifteen years in the drab city of Schenectady. In the opening moments we see three motorcyclists entering a “ball of death” at a gaudy carnival. As the crowd cheers, the men start their engines, and their paths weave around each other until everything is a blur. It’s a neat metaphor, not at all heavy-handed, for the movie’s three-part structure, not to mention the way its characters will soon find themselves trapped in their own obligations as workers, lovers, and, above all, fathers.

One of the men in the ball is Luke (Ryan Gosling, in a solid performance), whose struggle to provide for his former lover (Eva Mendes) and their infant son forms the first of the film’s three distinct acts. Gosling, still an underrated actor, gives Luke a peculiar mixture of weakness and hyper-masculinity that recalls his character in Drive – in one hypnotic bank robbery scene, his voice cracks like a teenager’s when he tries to shout orders.  In the second act, Bradley Cooper gives what may be his best performance as an ambitious police officer, Avery Cross (in this movie, everybody’s name means something). For once, he doesn’t seem to be stretching in his emotional scenes, and he does an excellent job of playing unlikeable and sympathetic at the same time. Nevertheless, the finest performance belongs to Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Luke’s unpredictable accomplice. Building off the menace he showed in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn embodies a cackling, cocaine-snorting scumminess (he even offered to have his teeth removed for the movie) as he and Gosling riff on bikes, bad TV, and strippers. These moments of camaraderie provide uneasy laughs in a film that’s sometimes too serious for its own good.

It’s a shame that The Place Beyond the Pines ends up running into the same problem as so many other “everything is connected” movies: we choose our favorite storyline, and get impatient with the others. Gosling and Mendelsohn leave rather abruptly a third of the way in, and the film never quite recovers from the loss. The final act is deeply unsatisfying, with Avery and Luke’s children, now teenagers, doing less of the work than the repetitive, cloying score.  It’s disappointing, too, that Cianfrance, who directed Michelle Williams to spectacular results in Blue Valentine, largely ignores his female leads, Rose Byrne and Eva Mendes. Why does it follow that a movie about fathers should give only paper-thin characterization to mothers?

About half an hour into The Place Beyond the Pines, Luke motorcycles through Schenectady on his way from another bank robbery. For some reason, Cianfrance chooses to shoot half of this scene in an annoyingly kinetic, Paul Greengrass-y style; the other half consists of slow, gorgeous landscape shots that capture the beauty of the city’s titular pines. I only wish Cianfrance had recognized the eerie perfection of those moments, and realized how redundant everything else in the scene was. I ended up feeling the same way about the movie itself.