The Place Beyond the Pines ★★½

Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious and intimate epic about legacies and masculinity. Spanning decades and generations this overwrought triptych is purposeful but overextended as Cianfrance attempts to distill a sprawling myth-building story into a slender 140-minutes. Whilst ambition is something that should be encouraged it is ultimately what stops the film from achieving greatness.

This story in three parts follows the intersecting lives of two very different families. Ryan Gosling once again stars as an enigmatic anti-hero who turns to crime to provide for his young family. His choices send him on a collision course with a rookie cop, played by Bradley Cooper, that will irrevocably shape the lives of both men and their young sons.

Cianfrance’s film is fascinated by male identity and the sins of the father. The Place Beyond the Pines exists in a wholly masculine world to the point the rudimentary female characters practically become pretty set decoration. It is consumed by the frictions in male relationships, particularly those between father and son, as characters are haunted by the mistakes of the past. By broadening the scope of the story to cover decades and multiple generations, Cianfrance reveals the film’s fatalistic message.

It is a brooding and oppressive work as the lives of these men come crashing together. As with any story of this kind there is often a contrived neatness to the intersecting relationships but it works more successfully here due to its near-mythic tone. It is an American fable dripping in self-importance and Cianfrance maintains a compelling and doom-laden atmosphere throughout.

Due to its triptych-like structure it is film that can feel rushed and undeveloped as it races towards the next drama. The opening story, focused on Gosling’s attempts to connect and provide for his son, is by far the most compelling. This opening chapter bristles with intensity as the young father turns to robbing banks. The sense of speed and tension during the robberies and getaways is exhilarating whilst Handsome Luke makes for an enigmatic yet strangely sympathetic protagonist, even if his actions don’t always ring true.

The film’s shocking shift in focus is handled brilliantly but in introducing a new focal point (the ambitious police officer played by Cooper) something is lost in the transition. Although Cooper delivers one of his best performances to date his story of compromised morality and corrupt officials lacks vitality and originality. Gone is the tension of the film’s enthralling opening and in its place is an overly familiar story that is populated with stock and ill-defined characters. Cianfrance almost ruins his own film by making the first chapter too good meaning neither the individual stories or characters that follow can compete with the attention-grabbing opener.

As the film jumps forward 15-years, Cianfrance introduces a new set of characters but only with moderate success. Whilst this closing chapter brings the story full circle and overtly reveals the themes of the film it lacks the emotional payoff and closure that the film has been crying out for after the abrupt first-act finale. The audience is asked to invest in characters that are hard to connect with as the film rushes towards its neatly constructed conclusion. The stories may be driven by the characters’ choices and wrong decisions but they are rarely given time to breathe and often lack credibility.

It is a shame to fault a filmmaker for overextending himself because this is still an accomplished and atmospheric drama. It is a film comprised of individual moments of brilliance but is sadly undone by its ambitious structure that creates a disconnect between the audience and characters. The Place Beyond the Pines valiantly strives for greatness but stumbles at the final hurdle.

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