When a film is lauded first and foremost for the intent of its ambition it’s a pretty clear indication that something has gone seriously amiss, as if the director should collect brownie points for what he (or she) hoped to realize rather than what he (or she) actually puts on the screen. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a classic example of a film doggedly insisting the director has something on his mind, yet failing to enlighten the viewer just what that might be. Derek Cianfrance’s multigenerational film redresses the weary melodramatic concept of the sins (or actions) of the Father being visited upon the Son, especially if the director broadly manipulates it that way; a hoary convention that is molded into an extended pseudo-Terence Mallick knock-off, complete with pretentious visuals suggesting metaphysical absolutes at play, but merely illustrating a self-consciously vacant story postulate with grammar school-level existentialism.
If the film is about anything, it is that taciturn behavior is falsely adorned with the trappings of profundity within the realm of the anti-Hollywood independent American cinema circles, a misconception that only exposes the deficiencies in the script by Cionfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, a scenario which unfolds in three distinct chapters, each focusing on a different central character, though all become indelibly interwoven, despite the obvious distance in their social rankings. None of the major characters is a model of vocal expression, portrayed through unaccountably extended patterns of contemplative but uncomfortable silence of a sufficient quantity to make Harold Pinter squirm with impatience, while failing to explore avenues to account for what precisely is going through their respective minds. No where within the bounds of credible dramaturgy is there a reasonable progression of important narrative interconnections that occur naturally but, instead, the story unravels in a forced (not to mention severely underdeveloped) flow of character evolution by both a director whose artistic pretension outweighs his dramatic good sense, and a writing team which is too lazy to fill in the chasmlike gaps of character; unthinkable for a film of this extended length which would seem to be able to afford a sufficiency of opportunity for such a graduation of internally expository insight to nurture and flourish.
Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a traveling carnival daredevil motorcyclist who upon returning to Schenectady, New York during the annual summer tour, reacquaints himself with his previous year’s fling, Romina (Eva Mendes), who was unwittingly impregnated and now has a son, Jason, by him. Feeling despondent over his lack of ability to properly fund this spontaneously emergent sense of responsibility, Luke resorts to bank robbery, abetted by a greasy associate Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who gradually regards Luke’s increased recklessness with alarm, leading Luke to attempt a robbery which leads to a fateful confrontation with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), himself son of former State Supreme Court Justice Al Cross (Harris Yulin) and father to AJ, his own young son. The film’s third segment leaps forward fifteen years to now focus on AJ and Jason, who, by the most blatant of circumstantial arrangements, are found to be drug hungry compatriots whose equitable descent into anarchic behavior remains unexplained (in actuality, the behavior of the student body in the Schenectady school system is portrayed as being one rung below the patrons of Caligula’s orgy ship, a fact that should delight the town’s P.T.A.) and has to be taken on faith rather than the more plausible explanation that it is simply necessary for Cianfrance’s grand design, otherwise the fragile house of cards of which the narrative is founded would collapse under the weight of more inquisitive scrutiny. This unrelenting corruption is demonstrated by almost every character in the film (if the characters aren’t directly lawless, they are abetted by others too weak to act upon their knowledge of said corruption), creating one of the most oppressive atmospheres in modern American film: it is discomforting to see a world portrayed with so little dramatized free will evident, most of the plot hinging on unexplainably motivated actions which betray the most basic tenets of common sense, but are necessary only if the film is meant to specifically follow an aesthetic design of the director rather than explore the human condition; with the marionette strings visibly attached from the characters to the director’s chair without regard to the most basic behavioral logic.
Cionfrance also displays a penchant for using images as a form of cinematic impressionism, that have little to no cohesive value to his threadbare narrative and skeletal conceptions of character. When the film begins with Luke encased in his carnival death globe, spinning perilously with two other stunt riders for the cheap amusement of gawking onlookers, the symbolism is already apparent that Luke is encased in a hopeless state, traveling in circles but going no where. During the robbery getaways, his motorcycle is seen in an almost fixed state with the oncoming traffic rushing by in almost hallucinogenic stuttered imagery, signifying a limbo of purpose, a literal rode to nowhere. Thus it is no surprise that the heavy handed symbolism of making his final escape attempt through a cemetery will lead to an unfavorable conclusion. The road journeyed, an overused metaphorical gambit, is used to assert a sense of enclosure that is admittedly palpable yet serves no contributory depth, save for overbearing portents of doom, contributing to a directorial catalog of meaningless symbolism masquerading as meaning. The entire film is suffocated by the idea of Art.
The structural set-up for a multigenerational story on the inevitability of the course of life paved for the son by way of the father is directly reminiscent of Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy, though for whatever flaws those films contained- and they were legion -there, at least, was a clarity of purpose laid out on a narrative level, consistent with the goals of the characters; a definable fatefulness that is absent from this film. No where in the film’s first section are credible motivations given for any of the character behavior which lead (often with highly suspect, circuitous routes) to the later forced interconnections; such is the nature of the plot elements that everything smacks of an almost supernatural predetermination, as if the director is counting on the audience not having seen very many movies. This first section is without question the most successful, if for no other reason that the kinetic nature of Luke’s newly chosen profession allows the director to indulge a series of repetitious chase scenes- a late arriving theatergoer might mistake the film for the latest edition of “The Fast and the Furious” were it not for the oppressive gloom that hangs over every frame -that give a brief illusion of forward momentum; if not in the narrative sense, at least with visceral stimulation. The opening of the film follows Luke’s preparation and approach to the pathetic, tawdry carnival boardwalk setting, a sequence that recalls, with all of the attendant self-conscious importance, nothing more than a cartoonish superhero action fest where the villain’s initial appearance is prolonged in an exaggerated fashion to prepare for a big “reveal”: this is colorful visual affectation with no other purpose except to divert from the emptiness of what’s on the screen.
From the beginning Cianfrance attempts to dress Luke in a mythic aura the film is unable to sustain as within minutes of his self-created crisis, he rather easily slides into a life of serial armed felonies; circumstances which defy sympathetic treatment even as an anti-hero (especially as the bank customers and tellers Luke terrorizes are unceremoniously dismissed as convenient props by the director) nor is comparable sentimentality attached to Luke’s confederate Robin: even by Luke who in cold-blooded fashion menaces his “friend” in order to prove an innocuous point. The source of the psychic angst which will dog Avery throughout convenient moments in the story- at other times forgotten as if the screenplay suffers from chronic sporadic amnesia -is psychologically misplaced except for the demands of the story and certainly not consistent with Avery’s abundant lack of charity toward anyone else about him. The subplot involving corruption in Schenectady’s police force is another distraction, to divert attention away from the one-dimensional cut-out Avery’s character consists of, one of the most spectacularly underdeveloped characters to disgrace the screen in a film with credited artistic aspirations. The sum total of Avery’s development during the film occurs between the second and third sections where, in the fifteen year gap, he acquires a chin full of two-day stubble to signify maturation.
The actors all seem burdened by a palpable gloom throughout the film (there is not a remarkable performance in evidence), lathered with a gratingly heavy use of music tracks that continually slam the viewer with sharp prods instructing how to think and react: in a truly artistic film, normally the function of incisive writing, direction and acting. Ryan Goslin sulks through his role, allowing his tattoos to do the heavy lifting, while sparking zero chemistry with Eva Mendes who emotes gamely but is clearly defeated by a role that is virtually nonexistent. The most disappointing of the principals is Bradley Cooper, who is a somnambulist in his role as Avery, the one character who has the slightest possibility of growth, unconvincing as either a man in moral crisis or one plagued by doubts as to his action which lead to his eventual career ascension. Disastrous is the only word for Emory Cohen as A.J., a clownish kindergarten version of Scarface by way of Leo Gorcey, this full-lipped dullard not only seems to be coming from a different film (he would not be out of place in one of Brian De Palma’s more tasteless stylistic excesses), but even in filmdom’s often dicey casting Salad Spinner, this specimen would hardly come from a gene pool even remotely connected to his supposed screen parents.
If the ending of the film symbolizes a philosophical reprieve from the film’s bleakness- telegraphed by emerging pastoral mistiness -it is only that it signals directions to the exit door, relieving the audience of further immersion in Cianfrance’s aesthetic bouillabaisse, pregnant with allusions to grand but false novelistic aspirations, though signifying less than nothing: far from the realm of Art but certainly smelling fishy.