The Place Beyond The Pines, which reunites Blue Valentine’s Derek Cianfrance with Ryan Gosling, is a weird film, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It looks nice, features an endlessly compelling performance by Gosling, and involves motorbikes. I’m not sure how that combination can possibly produce a bad film, especially when it’s Gosling doing the badass biking, but, somehow, it has.
Structured as a triptych focusing on the sins of our fathers and the sacrifices they make for their children, it’s a film that suffers from a serious case of over-ambition. Cianfrance has essentially made three films: one of them is great, one of them is good, and the last one? Christ. That final section of the film redefines what it means for a film to drag. You thought Return of the King was bad for false endings? Wait till you’re two hours into this film, at which point the very fabric of time seems to be stopped by Cianfrance.
The first section, which focuses on Gosling’s James Dean-esque biker, is everything this film could have been, if only it had narrowed its scope just a tad. Gosling exudes so much presence that his character scarcely seems real. He seems mythic, yet at the same time all too human. His performance casts a shadow over the film that it never really escapes from. Even Bradley Cooper, whose committed-to-a-fault cop comes to the fore later on, just seems kinda dull by comparison. Cooper puts in an excellent performance, but you’re left pining (pun totally intended) for Gosling’s raw magnetism. I never truly rated Gosling, but, seeing how starkly even Cooper pales by comparison, I get the appeal now.
That compelling acting disappears in the closing section of the film, where the sons of Gosling and Cooper take centre stage. For one, Cooper’s son, supposedly 17, is clearly a 35 year old Italian American. He just looks silly walking around a high school. And the dialogue, dear lord is it contrived. And the characterisation, mother of god is it one dimensional. The film, already ‘measured’ in pace, melts into a catatonic slog for the last, god, hour? 2 hours? I don’t even know. That last third just did not stop.
It’s not just a question of decreasing measures of talent, the whole narrative fades. What starts as a touching, yet thrilling, examination of fatherhood from the eyes of the rebel, turns into a run of the mill police procedural and then a high school daddy issue melodrama. Interesting arcs are introduced and compelling characters like Ray Liotta’s cop are created, only for them to fade into irrelevancy as soon as they got going. I feel I should name drop Eva Mendes here since she is fairly prominent, but all she really does is age badly. The female parts are very, very underwritten.
The film is worth seeing in the way that Tree of Life is worth seeing, although the latter trumps this by a considerable margin. They’re both films of ambition, beauty and emotion, even if they are highly flawed. This film is worth seeing just for Gosling’s section, which I found myself quickly becoming nostalgic for every time I heard Mike Patton’s piano motif strike up.
Patton’s score, incidentally, is yet another triumph for the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist who seems to have found a way to be loved by literally every one. His score is another reason to see it, a perfect melding of classical convention with his rock background and experimental tendencies. Much like everything else, it shines brightest when it works around Gosling. Also, the film uses a song by Suicide in a way that can only be described as bitchin’.
The cinematography, lavish and scenic throughout, just seems drawn to Gosling. It captures his character in a light that seems to transcend the ordinary. It’s like watching an icon emerge before your eyes. Gosling’s character, captured like this, could have been a true film icon in a more tightly focused film.
The rural, up-state New York setting is similarly beautifully captured. It’s open, lush and seems drawn from another, more mythic time. The film soon swaps Gosling weaving through pines and roaming the empty countryside for corridors and suburbia though. The film really suffers for the change, perhaps even as much as for the shift in focus from Gosling. I can’t emphasise strongly enough how pretty this film looks at times.
Ultimately, when you pull all the disparate threads together, is this a film I would recommend? I wish I could say yes to that, and I almost feel I should. I want to say I loved this film, because for a while I thought I did. I would watch it again just for Gosling, and maybe for Cooper. The opening hour or so is beautiful, powerful, sweeping cinema that shows an actor and a director firing on all cylinders. The rest? Not so much.
God, I miss Ryan Gosling already.