Among the things that made director Derek Cianfrance's breakout feature, Blue Valentine, so powerful, touching and ultimately devastating was its extremely limited scope. This was an autopsy of a marriage that focused almost exclusively on its two main characters, and much of the time was spent locked in a lurid hotel room as their relationship boiled over and fizzled out. It brought out career-best performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling: The actors were never afforded opportunities to hide behind tired cinematic tropes, which created a tense rawness.
With The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance expands his scope considerably, enveloping two families across more than a decade of distress, triumph and tragedy. Yet somewhere along the way, the director loses the heart that marked his previous triumph. The Place Beyond the Pines packs bravado performances across a sprawling narrative. But it's also about 60 minutes longer than it needs to be, and runs out of gas after its remarkable first act. It's a film that's completely overstuffed, and oftentimes overcooked.
Cianfrance makes an interesting choice in cutting the film into three distinct but interconnected sections, allowing the events to play out chronologically. There's a certain realism that results from this aesthetic, but much of it is lost on a script that goes through some very familiar and overused story beats: the desperate bank robber, the good-cop-in-a-corrupt-force drama, and the trouble of bullying in high school.
In the film's most captivating section, we're introduced to Luke (Gosling), a carnival stuntman with a thing for facial tattoos and one-night stands who fully embraces his nomadic lifestyle. That all changes when he discovers that a fling with a local woman (Eva Mendes) has made him a father. Suddenly shouldered with responsibility, he takes a job with a local mechanic (the terrific Ben Mendelsohn), whose criminal history leads the two into a secondary career as bank robbers.
This leads Luke on a path that soon intersects with that of rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose actions garner him considerable media attention and put him in line with a crew of corrupt cops led by a particularly snide Ray Liotta. It also leads the film into a lull as Cooper, himself a new father, struggles with his conscience.
Finally, the film dives headlong into cliché when it fast-forwards 15 years to a high school where the sons of Luke and Avery—unaware of their fathers' history—become friends and drug buddies, eventually shouldering their fathers' past traits in ways that feel forced. That's no fault of the young actors. Emory Cohen brings depth and confusion to the high-strung Avery Jr., a child of privilege whose identity goes into a tailspin of narcotics and violence. Rising star Dane DeHaan, meanwhile, gives the best performance in a film stacked with nuance as Luke's son, a scrawny and good-natured kid tortured by a mysterious past.
At 140 minutes, The Place Beyond the Pines has ample time to set up its complex narrative tapestry. But each segment has a rushed quality, racing past the most interesting aspects before skidding to a halt in a bloated midsection. The moment Gosling's character decides to strive for a better life, he's sticking up a bank. The minute after Cooper's cop becomes a symbol of good, he's forced into a shakedown with civilians. There's too little time given to fully develop motivations. Had Cianfrance given his characters room to breathe, the film might transcend the genre trappings it falls into so easily. It's a noble effort: beautifully acted and sprawling in its ambitions. But in widening his lens, the director loses focus on the big picture.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: The Place Beyond the Pines is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.