Which is better: a movie that bites off exactly what it can chew and executes its conceit competently without surprises, or a movie that attempts to squeeze ample material for a richly detailed TV series into two hours and, of course, fails?
There’s no right answer. Some people like Argo, and some people like The Tree of Life, which attempts to squeeze all of time into one movie. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance isn’t quite that ambitious in The Place Beyond the Pines. But he’s definitely let loose since he made the fest favorite Blue Valentine, which focused on the rise and demise of a single relationship.
Multiple relationships are doomed in Pines, starting with the brief one between carnie motorcycle-stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling) and levelheaded Schenectady, N.Y., girl Romina (Eva Mendes). When Luke swings by her town at the film’s opening, he learns their tryst has resulted in a son.
The adrenaline junkie is eager to be a dad, or thinks he is. But Romina has already found a stable father figure (Mahershala Ali) for her offspring and wants nothing to do with Luke — OK, not much to do with him. He is, after all, Ryan Gosling, and Cianfrance uses tattoos, carnival neon and ’80s ballads to make his destructiveness dreamy. (Yes, dude looks good on a motorcycle, but maybe it’s time for directors to stop typecasting and mythologizing him before he becomes Nicolas Cage.)
Egged on by an equally feckless friend (Ben Mendelsohn, in a deliciously seedy turn), Luke sets out to show he can, at least, provide for his kid — by robbing banks at gunpoint.
It’s a bone-headed scheme with a suitably bone-headed denouement. And suddenly we’re in a whole new storyline about a quiet Schenectady cop (Bradley Cooper) who has his own issues with sonhood and fatherhood. Cianfrance’s story just keeps spiraling out from there, aspiring to the multigenerational reach of Wuthering Heights or East of Eden. It’s less about any particular character than about sons searching for their absent dads (and vice versa) against the vividly realized backdrop of a town that’s seen better days.
There’s a reason most film adaptations of the aforementioned novels chop off an entire generation: Stories that sprawl through 20 years are difficult to tell in two hours. By the time Cianfrance reaches his final chapter, it’s clear he won’t bring this to a satisfying conclusion. Some of his key characters aren’t sufficiently fleshed out to justify their actions, while other performances simply deserve more time than they get. (Cooper’s is surprisingly strong.) While this kind of old-fashioned human drama calls for catharsis, the viewer of Pines leaves feeling mainly exhaustion.
Still, at a time when many movies string special effects on a rudimentary plot, there are worse things than too much story and too many characters. With his potent sense of place, Cianfrance spins a spell that gets us through the rougher patches. Pines was shot in and around Schenectady, with elevated shots of its stately landmarks and looming mountains contrasting with the grittier street views. By the end, we feel like we know this corner of upstate New York, from the scuzzy trailer in the woods where Luke nurses his resentments to the gracious homes of the town’s rich and powerful. And, yup, they’re all connected.
Would Pines have worked better as a 13-episode cable drama? Probably. Yet its atmosphere comes through beautifully on the big screen, even as its storytelling suffers from the running time. For the right viewer, this overweening failure could have the edge on pat success.