The Place Beyond The Pines starts like lightning then crashes like thunder
The Place Beyond the Pines (PBTP) is director Derek Cianfrance’s followup to his acclaimed Sundance debut Blue Valentine. Like it’s predecessor, the PBTP utilises a staggered timeline for it’s narrative, following several characters across different times. Where in Blue Valentine this dichotomy drove home the promise of an early relationship and contrasted this with its harsh disintegration. Here the change in protagonist and subsequent fast forward only serve to hobble the film and instigate a downward spiral from a fun, promising beginning.
The trailer left many expecting PBTP to be a Drive knockoff – Ryan Gosling stars as a handsome career criminal with a heart of gold, a sweet jacket and unbelievable vehicular prowess – and while this is an unfair assumption it’s not entirely off base. The broad strokes are similar, but while Gosling is quiet here, he comes off as more of an emotionally under equipped if well meaning failure rather than the suave, collected archetype we saw in Drive. Similarly, he’s very grimy. We see him clad in worn, inside out Metallica t-shirts and coated in tattoos. This is not the aspiration attire of Drive, and the choice makes drifter carnival motorcycle stuntman Luke feel like a real, lived in character rather than a paradigm of cool. It’s a brave and respectable decision to grunge up such a notable heartthrob like this and it works well enough.
From a refined playfulness in The Ides of March to damaged former glory in Blue Valentine to the aforementioned Drive, Ryan Gosling’s hair has demonstrated a startlingly impressive acting range. In the PBTP it’s a messy, somewhat untamed accessory. The electric blond dye job hints at the danger looming within this bikers free spirit. It may be one of the less memorable hair performances in his oeuvre but it’s another example of the exciting potential of Ryan Gosling’s hair and there are surely great things to come from it in the future.
Speaking in the broadest terms, the PBTP begins by winding up to Gosling’s bank job escapades until these actions collide with Bradley Cooper’s cop character then follows through to the aftermath these actions come to impart on the sons of these men in the ensuing years. The films entertaining first hour benefits from the pairing of Gosling with grungy Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn, whose upbeat charisma makes for a charming and oft entertaining partnership with serious Luke. Mendelshohn has been called on frequently to play disgusting, shitty bastard lowlifes for a while now, and he’s been excelling at this in films such as Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly, putting in performances as characters as cringeworthy and just plain skeezy as an evening with Jimmy Saville. Here he’s much more likeable as a seasoned heist merchant/mechanic, though still looks like a man who will never truly be clean.
The PBTP hits a strong peak when these two begin hitting banks and trading some surprisingly great banter (“Never since Hall and Oates has there been such a team”), and while their hookup is contrived to a degree normally reserved for videogames, it’s easily overlooked when it gets us into this kind of fun. Things are really firing on all cylinders during the heists themselves, which are shouty and uncoordinated in a very realistic way. The high speed getaways are absolutely astounding to watch, feeling high octane and dangerous thanks to frenetic, shaky camera work and editing. Wobbly dash-cam footage from pursuing police cars enhances the violent speed of the chases, Grand Theft Auto style affairs that make Luke look like he’s in genuine peril throughout.
The only real downside to these sequences (and the Luke story as a whole) comes in the music, or rather, the absence of anything particularly notable. Perhaps I’m at fault for having unrealistic expectations due to the pedigree of Blue Valentines excellent, bracing Grizzly Bear soundtrack but I came expecting some choice, thrilling motorcycle appropriate songs. Luke gives the appearance of a character with a very particular taste in life and in music, and this really could have come through in the score, especially during the more intense scenes but instead the music is just passable instead of exceptional.
And thus we must switch down a gear and enter the world of educated cop with a conscience Avery Cross. Bradley Cooper is usually a solid bet, but his portion of the film takes a hard shift away from the exciting high octane action we were becoming accustomed to. His story of a determined, law degree holding cop battling police corruption against the odds to ascend politically is incongruous and strays into overcooked Richard Gere territory. Everyone here feels like they fell out of an overwrought police drama series and the sudden if mercifully short invasion of Ray Liotta doesn’t help in the slightest. Liotta has been on a run of being the single worst thing about every movie he’s been in for at least the last decade, and the streak continues here. He’s a bad omen of things to come when things go from tedious to downright embarrassing.
I’d rather not reveal too many details about the later developments, suffice to say that going by the trailer: the PBTP is “an exhilarating epic of fathers, sons and consequences” and this bromide comes to be true in the worst possible ways. The overarching themes here feel very much like overreaching, and the story ends up being told with all the subtlety and believability of ancient Greek myth. While Bradley Cooper’s maligned beat cop battling against bad ass biker Gosling might have been pretty ordinary movie fare, what is delivered falls far and away from the potential seen in the early going.
The mileage you get from The Place Beyond The Pines will differ depending on just how much you enjoy the admittedly drive esque caper that looked to be beefing up the incisive portrayal of complicated relationships seen in Blue Valentine with brusque action and how much you can tolerate everything that comes after. The Place Beyond The Pines isn’t a complete wreck, but it does develop into something of a disappointment, breaking down and shuddering along the longer it goes on. Whether or not this is a problem of tainted expectations not meeting reality is a question to consider.