The Place Beyond the Pines wants to be a movie about big ideas: causality, patriarchy, the cyclical nature of violence. And it is, in a sense, about those things, at least as far as they’re kind of plain and flatly observed. But what the movie is about and how it goes about it — the tension between what you say and how you say it — are two different things, and the execution only occasionally lives up to the standard toward which director Derek Cianfrance seems to be striving. There are some good moments scattered throughout, as well as glimpses of good performances, but Cianfrance hinders the film’s impact by opting for a tripartite structure that fails to feel whole and instead comes across as three separate, modest short films that have been somewhat awkwardly joined together. Cianfrance, sharing writing credit with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, seems to operating under the belief that the appearance of scope automatically grants the power of same, and that stitching three novellas together into an awkward film is the same as making big points about the human condition. It’s not, though, and there’s a reason such films are hard to do well. What’s meant to be grand or revelatory instead feels like the color-by-numbers version of storytelling, and the attempts to force connections only wind up making the story feel thinner than it already is.
All of which is a shame, because there really are some strong scenes here. Set in Schenectady, the film’s first third deals with Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a carnival motorcycle rider who’s about to leave town with the rest of the crew when he learns that he fathered a child with a local girl, Romina (Eva Mendes), when he was last in the area. Determined to do some approximation of the right thing, Luke quits the carnival and tries to find ways to support the baby and reinsert himself in Romina’s life. It’s soapy but not without merit, and Gosling’s gift with volatility is a perfect match for a character torn between his small dreams and bigger demons. He becomes increasingly desperate to provide for the child, as well as for a woman who keeps telling him she’s moved on, and Cianfrance charts a natural progression from that desperation to the dangerous criminal acts that follow. Where he starts to lose the thread is when he attempts to broaden the story by grafting on what feels like people and places from an alternate universe. Around 50 minutes in, beat cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) shows up, bringing with him corrupt officials and small-town politics and enough supporting players to fill half a dozen airport novels. Cianfrance keeps piling on the plot, and there are moments when it almost works, when you can believe in the parallels between Luke and Avery and sympathize with two men who each learn in their own way to deal with the consequences of their actions.
But it’s never enough to hold together. The sketch I outlined above only covers the film’s first two thirds; there’s a third section, set 15 years later, in which Cianfrance continues to meagerly explore the ways these men influenced each other’s lives. Luke and Avery feel like ciphers, empty men with murky motives, yet we don’t get enough of them on screen to understand who they really are. Their choices feel less their own and more like ones forced on them to shove the transparent narrative a little farther down the road. The film’s also unclear about its own moral politics. Luke’s an earnest but mostly bad person, driven to anger and violence and theft, and he’s punished for his deeds. Avery’s a place-holder who vacillates between nobility and naked ambition, yet he finds himself suffering for doing better things. I’m not sure Cianfrance is arguing that the universe is chaotic, raining on the just and unjust alike, nor am I totally sure that he’s saying that any attempt to be good or bad winds up with the same result. I don’t think he’s saying much of anything. The problem is that he’s acting like he is. There’s a posturing to the film’s mini-climaxes that are meant to give it the heft, but they only ever simulate it. Life and death never feel like things that happen to people, but props in a play.
Cianfrance’s splintered story also suffers in weird ways for its length. At 2 hours 20 minutes, it feels ponderous and overlong, with each plot shift seeming to reset the clock. Yet each section of the film also feels too short, as if slowing down to spend more time setting up the rhythms of cause and effect would ruin whatever spell Cianfrance is trying to cast. I could have spent another hour with Gosling’s sad, angry biker, waiting for him to take root and blossom on screen, but I didn’t have the luxury. Similarly, there’s fertile ground in the film’s middle third, and Cianfrance doesn’t spend nearly enough time with Cooper’s frustrated policeman to find the power behind his class struggle, his worries, the marriage he’s blindly sacrificing to a dream that might never happen. It’s like listening to someone speed-read you a collection of short stories. You can tell that something’s happening, but you never get to know it.
And that makes me sad, because there really are hints and pieces of something powerful here. Cianfrance shows skill directing some of the action sequences, and the cast is strong at every level. The first act has the most to say about living broke on the edges of America: it’s Luke’s boss, a sketchy mechanic, whose bitter advice of “Good luck raising a family on minimum wage” sets in motion the chain of events that will drive Luke to increasingly dangerous ends to provide for his infant son. Yet Cianfrance hasn’t assembled a story here. He’s assembled the first half of three different films, then fused them together in the hopes that accidental similarities might seem profound. Half-telling multiple stories does not invoke the mysticism of the human condition, no matter how strong our collective daddy issues might be. The film’s title itself is another fake-out, and representative of the notion of plainness masquerading as profundity. “The place beyond the pines” is, roughly, the Mohawk meaning of Schenectady, which is where the film is set. That’s it. Sometimes things really are what they seem, and nothing more.