Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a movie in three parts, two of which are very, very good, and third of which is not quite so good. It’s an extremely ambitious effort that falls slightly short.
Cianfrance is best known as the director of 2010’s “Blue Valentine,” one of the best movies of that year, one of the most intense, heart-wrenching depictions of a marriage gone awry that’s ever been seen on screen, and Ryan Gosling’s best performance to date. For the follow-up, Cianfrance revisits some of the same themes, while again setting his story in the depressed, rural Northeast, and involving Gosling once again.
But where “Blue Valentine” was intimate, the 140-minute “Place Beyond the Pines” is expansive, concerning way more characters and a wider variety of subject matter. It’s a good movie, no doubt, but it’s nowhere close to the achievement “Blue Valentine” was.
The film’s first third stars Gosling as a motorcycle stuntman-turned bank robber, inspired to take up crime when he finds out he has a 1-year-old son. The second third is about a white knight cop (Bradley Cooper), who must make a choice about whether to go along with police corruption. And the last act, set years later, is about what happens when Gosling and Cooper’s sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) grow up and meet each other.
Similar themes crop up again and again, such as good people doing the wrong thing, fathers disappointing sons and vice versa, and sins of the past being revisited again and again. And while this is unquestionably a continuous story, each third seems like it could function as its own short film.
The first third is the strongest, the second only slightly behind, and the third is the weakest, mostly because while Gosling and Cooper are both very, very good actors who are at the top of their game here, they’re surrounded by an awesome supporting cast, and the two actors playing the sons can’t come close to measuring up. Also, certain plot choices in the third act feel arbitrary.
In particular, I just don’t get what DeHaan is going for- he hasn’t made much of an impression in anything I’ve seen him in, but seemingly every week there’s word of him being cast in some big new movie. He’s like the male Carey Mulligan.
About that supporting cast- it’s first rate all the way. Ray Liotta has a brief what suitably menacing turn as a dirty cop, while Harris Yulin is an always welcome sight as Cooper’s father, a powerful judge who can’t understand why Cooper threw away a law career to become a cop. Ben Mendelsohn, who’s been ubiquitous lately in scumbag roles, has another good one as the guy who suggests Gosling rob banks. And while Rose Byrne isn’t given much to do as Cooper’s wife, a significantly de-glammed Eva Mendes blew me away as the mother of Gosling’s child.
The film gets its title from the literal translation from the Mohawk language of “Schenectady,” therefore trumping Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” in the category of Schenectady-related wordplay in a movie title. But the photography of that part of upstate New York is gorgeous. And as he did in his previous film, Cianfrance does a great job making Ryan Gosling, one of the more handsome men in movies, look like an uncultured skuzz. Here, Gosling favors Metallica t-shirts, plentiful tattoos and bleach-blond hair, a look that’s right out of “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” even though it’s anachronistic by almost 15 years.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” is worth seeing, if only for its wide canvas and those excellent performances. But Cianfrance’s best film is still, unquestionably, “Blue Valentine.”