The Place Beyond the Pines is a disappointing film across a whole range of axes. But its particularly disappointing because Derek Gianfrances last offering Blue Valentine, was excellent and Beyond the Pines not only doesnt live up to the promise of its predecessor, it actually undermines it.
Blue Valentine was an indie flick with a low budget and single bonafide star in the form of Ryan Gosling. But that was 2010. Since then Gosling has been transfigured from merely a cool dude to Hollywoods coolest leading man. My guess is he went back to Gianfrance with his newfound starpower in his teeth and said, hey, wanna make that epic film you always wanted to make? If so he might also reasonably be held responsible for some of the movies worst indulgences. Its tremendous length and the presence of three stars (Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liota), things it would have been better off without. It might also explain why his part seems to been written for him by some one who really loved Drive.
Gianfrances filmmaking owes a great deal to tough American short story writers like Raymond Carver. Carvers fiction famously substitutes psychological exposition for actions freighted with psychological meaning. So here, when Goslings stunt-rider Luke accepts a lift from barely reformed bank-robber Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a meeting that will be fraught with danger for him, we can almost hear the narrrative voice saying blandly Luke put his bike in the trailer next to Robins quad and they rode back into town together. Its all about understatement.
In a film like Blue Valentine this approach worked a treat. It foregrounded the acting and tt made the movie seem wise – why do relationships end? Because sometimes they end, Billy Joe.
Only the Place Beyond the Pines has much greater scope, spanning as it does, four main characters and two generations. Its narrative focal point passes between Luke and the cop who catches him, Avery (Bradley Cooper), on to their two sons in high school. It wants to say something deep about the relationships between fathers and sons, but in the end its message is just too obscure to make out. Whats clear in a shorter film, with fewer elements at play, is lost in a beast of this size. And furthermore the energetic difference between the sections with Gosling, and those without just make you realise how much Blue Valentine depended on him for its power.
There are some niggling problems too, which will upset ungenerous-minded cinemagoers like me. If you can get over the fact that Goslings Luke appears to be the Driver but with more tats, the same actor, playing the same character in a different film, it still seems strange that his late 90s, white trash carney, with his visible tattoos and sleeveless Metallica vest should look just like this years Williamsburg hipster. All he needs is a whippet. Theyve also spared no expense making Eva Mendes look less hot than she is (surely as fine a waste of money as anyone could imagine) with some success. Apparently they had no budget left to uglify Rose Byrne, who is as superhumanly long-limbed and edilble as ever.
Sometimes the lack of narrative glue makes the whole project seem random and inconsequential. Sure, Averys Dad is a controlling arsehole who likes to go swimming. Sure, ok, but why is Averys son (Emory Cohen) quite such an intolerable little dickhead. This question is never answered. He just is, Billy Joe.
Gosling might have had the best of intentions, but maybe he would have been better off leaving his old friend Gianfrance in indie-land for a few more years at least. Without anything to restrain it, this film, which is trying so hard to be epic, just feels overblown.