Formed of three distinct segments that appear to have been welded together without the right tools or a user’s manual, The Place Beyond the Pines is injuriously kick-started by a crotch-cam view of Ryan Gosling’s six pack, a perspective as skin-deep as the film’s overblown title and much of what follows. Initially faceless, Gosling’s Luke adorns a sleeveless shirt and James Deans his way to the steel cage, where he and two other motorcycle daredevils provide an all-American mechanised rodeo to an expectant and bloodthirsty crowd. This testosterone-injected opening signifies director Cianfrance’s intention to cultivate Gosling as an edgy, disaffected, vaguely dangerous, neo-Brandoesque wild one. However, despite making his character work (albeit at the cost of looking fatuous), no amount of effort on Gosling’s part to align himself with the machismo-fuelled heroes of the past can disguise the fact that this film is poorly conceived, overly long and as cardboardy and chemically faked as a pine tree air freshener hanging in a minicab.
To be fair, the film’s fixation on Gosling’s masculine aura is somewhat pertinent, as the story does wax lyrically about male identity and father-son relationships, but if these themes don’t exactly flourish it is because Cianfrance’s indulgence of ellipses feels far too much like a cheap shot, and one that makes ciphers of his characters. The film superficially strokes a triptych of fragmented and bombastic articulations: Luke’s inexplicable and sudden urge to provide for a child he never knew he fathered with Romina (Mendes); policeman Avery Cross’s (Cooper) struggle to reconcile his sense of righteousness with his professional ambition; and finally, fifteen years on, as a collision between two teenage inheritors of their respective fathers’ sins. Throughout, Cianfrance sidesteps the potential depth and meaning of the narrative so as to give prominence to the melodrama of the characters stumbling upon their shared histories.
The Place Beyond the Pines never climaxes because it is incessantly on high alert and reducing the lives of its characters to their most intense moments: Luke heisting banks to support his son; Cooper fighting police corruption; their sons, oblivious to how their families are linked, flirting with disaster in and out of school as they circle each other like boxers. It’s a daisy chain of physical and psychological violence that sacrifices emotional specificity for sensational broad strokes. There are thus more nuances and dimensions to Luke’s chiselled form than there are in his compulsion to rob banks.
Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s last outing with Gosling in tow, also suffered from a certain monotonousness as well as a frantic handheld style that was always getting in the way. However, at least the protagonists offered a successful study in romantic ambivalence and the anguish that arises from seemingly endless self-protection against a psychologically spiralling partner. There was real attraction and repulsion to be found, whereas The Place Beyond the Pines has a much wider canvas with the segments essentially forming monodramas that are so patchily written that the vital moments feel less like recognisable human behaviour than recognisable screenwriter overreaching.
Cianfrance also shamelessly abuses the wide-ranging score provided by Faith No More’s Mike Patton to fatten a flimsy story of oversimplified romantic notions of masculinity, fatherhood and sin to the level of adrenalised Greek tragedy. It is a sheen that crumbles fast and hard beneath the weight of a ridiculously relentless sense of self-importance. Gosling may well aspire to be a rebel with a cause, but a giant of cinema he is not.
The Place Beyond the Pines (15)
Dir: Derek Cianfrance; US crime/drama, 2012, 140 mins; Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne
Premiered March 27