"The Place Beyond The Pines" Sees The Forest, Misses The Trees

“The Place Beyond The Pines” has no trouble pinning down its destination, but struggles mightily with the journey. This brand of character study should grab each member of the audience by the collar, dragging them into its fragmented world of crime, corruption, and moral ambiguity. But instead, “Pines” is content in tapping us on the shoulder and politely going about its business, weaving a decidedly unconventional tale of fathers and sons and the impact they have each other’s lives. Disclaimer: I won’t divulge any major spoilers, but if you wish to remain entirely in the dark, I suggest returning to this review after seeing the film.

It’s rare to see a picture so bogged down by the breadth of its ambition, but Derek Cianfrance’s second feature (following 2010’s “Blue Valentine”) nearly collapses under its own weight. Split into three distinct acts, each of the headliners gets his time in the sun, eventually taking a backseat to other cast members. Act I begins in Schenectady, New York circa 1996, following the story of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a touring motorcyle stuntman who discovers that he has a son by a former flame, Romina (Eva Mendes).

While the opening tracking shot evokes the isolation and despair of Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant “The Wrestler,” Luke’s life is soon punctuated by lightning strikes of crime, followed by the gentle roll of downtime with his family. In order to provide for his infant son, Luke teams up with a ne’er-do-well mechanic, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, in the film’s best performance), to rob a few banks, and the scenes are shot with a terrific sense of manic energy – the chase scenes take the divisive shaky cam technique to a new extreme. When the law finally corners Luke, he’s apprehended by Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an inexperienced cop with an equally young family to fend for.

Soon, the film transparently fades to black, signifying the end of Act I and beginning of Act II, which is centered around Avery’s fight against the corruption of his fellow officers – a situation with loose ties to Luke’s family. Gosling and Cooper share only a minute or two of screen time together, rendering the film’s “cat and mouse” ad campaign fairly misleading, but Act II’s problems aren’t limited to a lack of Gosling. Cianfrance and his co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder spend the first hour of “Pines” crafting a lush, captivating world that’s quickly abandoned, and it takes the duration of Act II for us to adjust.

As soon as Avery’s gnawing angst begins to pull us in, Act III begins with a “15 years later” title card. It’s strange to see Bradley Cooper as the father of a 16 year-old, and it doesn’t help that we’re supposed to buy his transformation from do-gooder cop to career politician. As “Pines” is handed over to the teenage sons of Luke and Avery, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), the evolution feels right – particularly the parallels made between Luke and Jason. But the clumsy plotting of the second act returns to haunt the picture’s later moments, and despite some appropriately dark revelations, their impact is blunted by Cianfrance’s hands-off approach to the material.

In aiming so high, “The Place Beyond The Pines” lands as an admirable but definite disappointment, especially considering the caliber of cast and crew involved. Its high points make it worth a watch, but its structure – while memorable – is too unwieldy and used too cavalierly to drive home its weighty themes. I suspect the film will be mostly forgotten come awards season, but it shouldn’t be discarded for a lack of trying. It could have been monumental, but mere respectability isn’t the worst ground to tread. Better to tread middle ground than water.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 29, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenwriter: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference)