The Place Beyond the Pines
(SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines. When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world.
But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished.
The inspiration for the movie ought to have dampened expectations. Director Derek Cianfrance, who teamed with Ryan Gosling on Valentine, took his cue from Gosling’s reported wish to rob a bank (as something in life he hadn’t done but wanted to do; this from one of the most feted actors of his generation). Gosling proceeded to explain how he’d go about it (so he’d obviously given the matter some thought) and his plan is what you end up seeing.
Which might have been well and good if Gosling had proposed the idea to another of his collaborators, Nicolas Winding Refn. After all, Drive turned on a not so dissimilar premise; Hollywood stuntman moonlights as a getaway driver (do we sense a running theme of muscle-brained machismo in Gosling’s choices?)
But Refn’s movie is consciously mythic and stylistically extravagant. You couldn’t mistake it for complex, except in a textural sense. That’s part of its pleasure. Cianfrance has stylish visuals on his side (courtesy of Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbit; his Valentine DP Andrij Parekh turned the project down after a premonitory dream in which he died during the opening fairground stunt sequence). And there is a haunting, evocative score from Mike Patton. But the production values are leagues ahead of the screenplay (by the director with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder).
What impact it has comes from its structure., I’d expected this to be a Gosling movie with Bradley Cooper in a supporting turn, but in the tradition of Psycho it takes some surprising detours. Cooper’s cop (Avery Cross) doesn’t actually show up until the end of the first act when he puts an end to Gosling’s robbery spree. It couldn’t happen a moment too soon, as I was wondering how I’d endure a 140-minute movie all about dim-watt sociopath Luke Glanton. This isn’t a character you can feel for, or who betrays any insights. He’s a caricature, as exterior as his blonde rinse and ridiculous tattoos, and any empathy we might have is forfeited long before we witness his explosive violence.
Cianfrance ensures that the heists themselves are enervating; there is a real sense of danger and immediacy to the chases. But they can’t make up for the deficiencies in the plot. Eva Mendes (as the mother of Glanton’s child) and Mahershala Ali (as her other half; Ali has recently been seen to scheming effect in House of Cards) are sympathetic in the face of Luke’s primal cartoon force, but the scenario is never for a moment believable. This another vehicle for Gosling to pose as an earthy, blue-collar type (even with the ludicrous character notes), to banish the ghost of The Mickey Mouse Club and show us how much he is informed by all those gritty, provocative ‘70s movies that stars made back then. Except that this time he’s shot him in the foot. His efforts prove faintly ridiculous, all posturing and no content. Glanton is as empty as Gosling’s thousand-yard stare. Cianfrance might argue that the point is that Glanton is completely lacking in self-awareness, but he omits to present a good reason for us to be involved with his story or an effective bridge between his elaborate criminality and the theme he wishes to explore. He’s using Timmy Mallet’s hammer to crack a nut.
The title of the movie sounds like something David Lynch might come up with, and Cianfrance frequently manufactures a dreamlike ambience that wouldn’t seem out of place in Lynch’s fare. But it feels like an inappropriate choice, foisted on subject matter that ultimately reveals itself to be so lacking in substance. He sets out to tackle an inter-generational theme (the sins of the father, and the need for forgiveness), but the canvas is too broad for him to pay any aspect of it justice. If the first sequence lacks credibility, the second is humdrum and over-familiar. Perhaps if Cianfrance had come up with something really Lynchian (Glanton and Cross are the same person!) it might have redeemed the stodgy aspects and rendered the dish more palatable.
Cooper is nearly as unbelievable playing a cop as Gosling is as a macho stunt rider. You’re never in any doubt that this is just an actor larking about at cops and politicians. The tentative attempts to explore the undeserved heroic status foisted in Cross, and his resultant guilt, have potential. But Cianfrance squanders this with ham-fisted exposition (Cross goes to see the police shrink who works out in seconds that he has problems being around his infant son because of his guilt over leaving Glanton’s son fatherless; her deductive powers are astounding!) It also quickly becomes obvious that the director has nowhere to take Mendes’ character for the rest of the story. She’s purely reactive, there to illustrate the parallels and differences between the two men who mess up her life (Cianfrance makes this particularly plain in scenes where each attempts to force her to take a gift as she escapes into the safety of her car).
The police corruption plotline isn’t just sub-The Shield, it makes the so-so cop dramas of James Gray and Gavin O’Connor look profound and insightful. A raft of great actors pop up for a few scenes (Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta) and there are good ideas sprinkled in, but none of it really hangs together. Maybe Cianfrance could have done his ideas justice with a mini-series (although that stunt riding bank robber shit would never fly), but the second act in particular suffers from rushing over the ground it needs to cover to reach the third.
Because, despite the focus being away from the star leads, the final act is where Cianfrance actually gets a grip on the story he wants to tell. The first two were needed to realise the third, but they weren’t the point. That doesn’t mean he is able to carry off the essential-interconnectedness-of-things contrivance by which the paths of the sons of Glanton (Dane DeHaan as Jason) and Cross (Emory Cohen as AJ) entwine. Cianfrance is pushing for the gravitas of grand Shakespearean tragedy and, if these two were star-crossed lovers rather than friends-come-enemies (albeit, there is a hint of homoerotic subtext at times, as there is between Luke and Ben Mendelsohn’s Robin in the first act), he might have succeeded. But he can’t disguise the wheels of convenience dictating the plot. DeHaan and Cohen are very good, although I haven’t seen the latter before to judge if his range. The character of AJ seems to suggest the idea that you’re better off not knowing your natural father than having one who neglects you, in which case you’ll most likely turn out to be a right little shit. DeHaan brings a commanding intensity to all his roles, and occasionally puts me in mind of a young Brad Dourif.
Cianfrance does little to sell the 15-year leap in terms of the holdover actors. Jason’s visit to Robin is well done though, and there is a strong flavour of the way memory adjusts the past to his reminiscences (that, and his need to avoid telling Jason the unvarnished truth). Bradley has slicked back his hair and donned a suit, but we only believe he’s the District Attorney because we are told it is so. Nevertheless, the scene where he confronts his son in the police cell, instructing him to stay away from Jason is powerful (“You leave that kid alone!”), and has a depth to it missing elsewhere. Cianfrance attempts to explore the idea of the inability to escape one’s past, but he ends up dealing with it rather crudely. Jason forces Cross to drive to the Miller’s Crossing-esque titular locale, the same spot where Ray Liotta was set to whack him over a decade earlier. There’s a sense that he should have died then, and that he has been a walking dead man ever since; it is only when he issues a heartfelt admission of sorrow for what he did that he finds peace. It’s a strong scene, and well-played, but it acts as a climax to a much better movie than the one the preceding two hours gave us.
I’ve yet to be convinced by Cianfrance. He’s a talented director, but his writing is neither as profound nor resonant as he clearly thinks it is. The intimacy of the performances in Blue Valentine (and, as here, the camerawork) papered over many of the deficiencies in the storytelling. He’s also clearly fascinated by the device of ellipses; there he used it reasonably well, but here the conceit has caught up with him. He may need to set his sights a little lower next time. Or better still, work from someone else’s script.