Two half-stories about fathers and sons on opposite sides of the law do not a full movie make in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” the overlong and under-conceived reunion between “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance and lookalike star Ryan Gosling. Divided into three segments tacked one after the other, the film begins with a lean “Drive”-like portrayal of a motorcycle daredevil (Gosling) who takes to robbing banks after learning he has an infant son to support. Then the story takes a hard right turn, effectively starting over with another, less charismatic character. Once word gets out, audiences will evaporate.
Taking its name from the Iroquois meaning of Schenectady, N.Y., where the pic takes place, this gravely serious indie drama treats the city as the capital of compromise, where values turn rancid the instant idealists come into contact with the other deadbeats in town. A brooding ladykiller half-covered in amateur tattoos, “Handsome Luke” (Gosling) rides bikes for a living. Returning to Schenectady as part of a traveling stunt show, Luke runs into lonely but unyielding Romina (Eva Mendes), a former one-night stand, only to find that she’s raising his kid. Luke quits on the spot and angles to insert himself into his infant son’s life, though Ro resists.
She has good reason to be wary, it turns out, since Luke’s idea of providing for the family entails knocking over local banks with no-good mechanic friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a short-term scheme virtually guaranteed to end badly.
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When it does, Cianfrance tries to keep things going by following Avery Cross (played with considerably less magnetism by Bradley Cooper), the rookie cop who sabotages what little chance Ro had of raising her son right.
From here on, “Pines” shifts gears, focusing on Cross. Rather than finding a creative way for behavior to illuminate the character’s state of mind, Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder present a succession of on-the-nose scenes during which the conflicted Cross visits a police shrink, chats with his service buddies and eventually appeals to his big-shot dad (Harris Yulin) about pulling some strings.
Flash forward 15 years, and the same approach applies to Luke’s and Aaron’s sons, each of whom is coping with the consequences of his parents’ selfish decisions. Aaron’s now struggling to raise teenage AJ (Emory Cohen) on his own and horrified that the youth is getting chummy with Luke’s son (Dane DeHaan, a picture of barely contained rage), but nowhere near as upset as the latter is to learn about his father.
Where “Blue Valentine” succeeded by laying bare elemental human emotions, then scrambling them in a way that felt daring and fresh, “The Place Beyond the Pines” internalizes much of what the characters are feeling while telling their stories in rote, linear fashion. Presented as such, without subplots or any clear sense of forward momentum, the film feels relatively meager in its insights. And yet the solution seems painfully obvious: Remix the three chronological stories, and the fragments might serve to reveal one another, particularly as each follows its own mini-arc.
While that may have been the original intent of Cianfrance and his editors, Jim Helton and Ron Patane, no evidence of any such effort remains, resulting in the same sort of less-interesting treatment one might get by, say, rearranging “Memento” into chronological order.
Dischordant music cues and striking widescreen lensing, a mix of austere frames and woozy handheld, create an uneasy mood upon which the pic only partially capitalizes.