Based on his two narrative features to date, Blue Valentine and now The Place Beyond the Pines, writer/director Derek Cianfrance is fascinated by consequences and the various ways in which a person's past actions inalterably shape the present and future for themselves and the people around them. In Valentine, this theme was explored through a narrative structure that bounced back and forth in time, contrasting the exciting rush of first love for its central couple (played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) with the pain and heartache generated by their failing marriage years later. Pines's timeline only moves in one direction -- forwards -- but it covers far more ground than Valentine, spanning almost 20 years in the lives of two upstate New York-based families whose fates become intertwined by an almost random moment of chance.
Despite its breadth, the film is broken down into a neat three act structure. Act 1 introduces us to motorcycle stuntman Luke (Gosling, reuniting with Cianfrance for a second go-around), who is performing in a carnival in Schenectady when he crosses paths with an old flame (Eva Mendes) and discovers that he's the father of a bouncing baby boy. Eager to be the dad to this tyke that he himself never had, Luke quits the road and tries to earn money to keep him in clothes and diapers. But there's predictability not much need for a motorcycle rider/amateur mechanic around the Schenectady area, so he turns to bank robbery as a way to make up the difference. A failed heist serves as the bridge to Act 2, which turns the narrative spotlight from Luke to Avery (Bradley Cooper), a fresh-out-of-the-academy cop who has a brief, but life-changing encounter with the small-time robber. A father himself, Avery is haunted by the impact his actions had on Luke's child and that sense of guilt drives him to attack wrongs that are in his power to right, starting with the corruption inside his own department. A less-elegant transition moves us into Act 3, which jumps ahead 15 years and zeroes in on Luke and Avery's two sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen a.k.a the notorious Leo from NBC's Smash), now teenagers who are unaware of each other... for the moment, anyway.
If it weren't so on-the-nose, I'd recommend that Cianfrance go back and change the movie's title from The Place Beyond the Pines to Sins of the Fathers, since that's ultimately what the movie is about. Then again, the film as it exists is awfully on-the-nose, hitting every dramatic beat just a little too hard for my taste. Now, I won't begrudge anyone who does get caught up in Cianfrance's intimate epic, because there is a lot about the film to admire, from the sheer scope of the story the filmmaker is out to tell to the individual performances by Gosling (magnetic), Cooper (quietly sympathetic) and Ben Mendelsohn (wonderfully seedy) as the mechanic who introduces Luke to the wild world of bank robbing. The first two acts of Pines function as compulsively readable short stories where you keep turning the page even when the plotting falters.
Act 3, however, is the film's big sticking point, not only because DeHaan and Cohen put the "obnoxious" in "obnoxious teenagers," but also due to the fact that this entire saga climaxes in an a moment of catharsis that feels remarkably pat and simplistic -- a variation on the old Good Will Hunting "It's not your fault" breakthrough, which I never found especially convincing either. (The movie's actual final scene is even more aggravating: a forced bit of circle-closing that left me rolling my eyes.) But that's the way it so often goes with these kinds of unabashedly florid melodramas; you either get swept up in the emotion of the piece to the point where the various clichés and contrivances fall away or you spend the whole movie constantly aware of -- and annoyed by -- the blatant manipulation that the filmmaker has built into the story. (For an example of a melodrama that did completely win me over, I point you to Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, which is even more absurd than Pines in many respects.) Kudos to Cianfrance for fully committing to his grand vision for this film, even if I couldn't ultimately go along for the ride.
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