By Quinn Russell Brown
The trailer for “The Place Beyond the Pines” features a motorbiking bank robber and an ambitious young police officer. The two seem destined to become entangled in an action-packed game of cat and mouse.
But what you think you’ll see isn’t quite what you get. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance, who gave mainstream movies a dismal dose of the avant-garde with “Blue Valentine” (2010), takes another alternative storytelling route in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” this time offering an oddly paced crime thriller that focuses more on the consequences of the crime than the thrill of it.
Ryan Gosling stars as the bad boy trying to do good, Bradley Cooper as the good boy trying to climb a career ladder. Their paths cross and they clash. Time passes. Enter their children, two sons, and wonder if the apple falls far from the tree. But before it knows where to fall, the apple has to find out where the tree is, or was.
The story informally breaks into three chapters, each one focusing primarily on a character or set of characters. Part one is Gosling, part two Cooper, part three their sons. While credit goes to Cianfrance for making some unorthodox storytelling decisions, this structure doesn’t really suit the content. To be specific, it can’t hold all the content. Unlike the fragmented narratives of a filmmaker like Wong Kar Wai—in which listless characters float around, and the viewer floats around with them—each chapter in “The Place Beyond the Pines” overflows with plot.
Example: In just 45 minutes, Bradley Cooper becomes a hero, takes on corruption in the police department, becomes a hero again, tries to find a way into politics, and struggles to relate to his wife, father and young son. At what feels like the midpoint of this storyline, the movie transitions to the third chapter with an abrupt “15 years later” title card, which was so out of nowhere that I actually laughed.
Another downside of this three-chapter structure is that it’s hard to care about a character if you don’t get to hang around them for very long. Just as I was really starting to get invested in Gosling’s character, the focus shifted to Cooper. The movie is constantly running away from you, like a little kid showing you his toys (all of which are badass action figures). “Here’s a character, do you like him? Either way, here’s another character—let’s talk about him now. Okay moving on, here’s two more.” It appears Cianfrance’s primary goal with this extensive narrative is to explore themes (fatherhood, sonship, forgiveness, regret), hoping to make the viewer think rather than feel.
Personally, I didn’t do much thinking or feeling during “The Place Beyond the Pines,” but it was still a good watch simply because of how cool it was. In addition to beautiful images and sounds, it’s got a couple exciting chase scenes and a handful of idiosyncratic, well-acted characters. And who knows, maybe it’ll get to your heart: I will admit that I went to the bathroom and missed a bicycling scene during which my friend, Matt Libby (Junior – Society, Ethics & Human Behavior), claims he cried.