There are compelling reasons to see The Place Beyond the Pines, and not just the fact that it was filmed in and around Schenectady. Chiefly, these are Ryan Gosling’s performance as a carnival stunt rider and Dane DeHaan’s turn as a troubled young man plagued by the sins of his father. Other than that, the movie, which was written by director Derek Cianfrance with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is a sprawling mess in search of a narrative center.
Told in three arcs, Pines begins with Gosling’s character Luke discovering that he fathered a son with Romina (Eva Mendes) the year before, when his carnival hit town. Suddenly, this rootless wanderer wants to stay put and provide for his baby, and maybe win back Romina, who has found a respectable, responsible boyfriend. Luke tries his hand at robbing banks; this is not exactly the safest choice for a man seemingly intent on finding some level of domesticity, and before long, his gig is up. The middle section of the movie centers around the cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose interaction with Luke has long-lasting consequences but whose storyline, involving cops on the take and parental expectations, begins to derail the carefully structured character study preceding it. At the end, it is 15 years later and the teenage sons of Luke and Avery—Jason (DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen)—cross paths in ways that have resounding consequences.
Apparently Cianfrance and his co-writers went through 30-some drafts before settling on this script, and watching Pines, it’s not hard to see that there was a lot of thought involving Shakespearian-style plotting and setting up characters in the model of other great character studies, notably The Wrestler. Unfortunately, it appears that the filmmakers couldn’t bear to rein in some of the structural dramatic overreaching, or bring themselves to edit out certain conceits. The sense of place, and an aura of loss and impending tragedy, is beautifully rendered, but the movie suffers from an almost gaping hole when it comes to plot. The actors (with the exception of the woefully miscast and downright annoying Cohen) give moving performances, but they don’t seem to have much to say or do between the set pieces, and the continually shifting tone, from character study to police procedural to showdown, weighs everything down. Pines—and Cianfrance—clearly have something worthwhile to say about the relationships between fathers and sons, the legacies of families, and the long-term effect of damages done, but it’s a garbled message.