The Place Beyond the Pines opens with Ryan Gosling, but it doesn't end with him. By the time the credits roll — two hours and 20 minutes later — we've cycled through three sets of main characters, and the plot has advanced forward 15 years. Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, fresh off his low-budget success Blue Valentine, has set his aim toward making a Great American Movie. His Pines is an audaciously structured, multi-generational triptych about paternal legacy, written in the mold of grand-scale storytellers like Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino. But Cianfrance's independent roots betray him. He hasn't earned the grandeur.
The film first follows Gosling's Luke as a stop in Schenectady, N.Y., turns into a long-term stay. Since most of the film takes place in the early '90s, the setting is realized with era-appropriate glumness. Luke makes his cash doing motorcycle stunts for a traveling carnival, and returns to find last year's one-night stand — Eva Mendes, stunning as always — raising his newborn child.
It stirs responsibility in him, a feeling that seems rooted in eclipsing his own father's failings as much as it is in affection for his son. Saddled with a particularly unbecoming facial tattoo, Luke tries to do right by his boy, buying him snacks and building him a crib. But he also can't help but run afoul of the law, beating Mendes' live-in boyfriend Kofi to near death in a jealous rage. What's a deadbeat dad who's also a living embodiment of America's outlaw past to do?
Obviously, he starts robbing banks. With the help of a trailer park Good Samaritan (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke becomes the Moto-Bandit, holding up local branches with his helmet on and his bike lying in wait in the doorway. Gosling channels the Al Pacino of Dog Day Afternoon, shrieking and shouting with an almost feminine inflection. And then, suddenly, the movie isn't about him anymore.
After a chance encounter, the focus shifts to Bradley Cooper's Avery Cross, a beat cop and the son of a well-to-do former judge. Made to look even more baby-faced than usual, Cooper flaunts his charisma, playing Avery as a likable, but self-interested idealist who enrolls in the police academy after law school because politics seem to be morally shaky. Then he runs into the head of the Vice Squad, Deluca (Ray Liotta).
Cooper's performance is a revelation, even after Silver Linings. From the first time Cianfrance cuts to him, he looks out of his element. Even the reveal itself — a standard profile shot of him sitting in his cruiser — feels shockingly unworthy of such a star. It makes him normal. His inherent cockiness stops playing as overt performance and begins to resemble a carefully constructed façade. He's always been overloaded with charm but now unsure vulnerability seeps through along with it. He transforms from a movie star into a human being.
Deluca tries to wrangle Avery into his ad-hoc gang of crooked cops, but Avery's integrity holds strong. His lack of cooperation eventually begins to resemble antagonism, and soon enough they're leading him out to the woods for a would-be execution. Cross escapes and, on the advice of his father, begins to manipulate them to his own effect; a pseudo-Shakespearean power struggle ensues.
What makes it so entrancing is Avery's culpability: he's the well-educated wolf in sheep's clothing, and he sees past these guys' working-class scams with clarity. Cianfrance tracks his movement from a guilt-ridden idealist into a jaded opportunist with subtlety and understanding, gracefully transcending all the clichés inherent in the character arc.
Then Pines flashes forward 15 years to watch another encounter, between Avery's son and Luke's son, and it's a damn shame. The melodramatic power struggle, set primarily in a high school, only weakens the already uneven film. It's painfully sophomoric compared to the complex morality hour that precedes it, offering little other than to say "the sons of thieves will be thieves, and the sons of politicians will tell lower-class people to do things for them." And don't even get me started on the neat-with-a-cherry-on-top conclusion, a crass Hollywood cop-out unbecoming of such an ambitious film.
The opening and closing movements, however, feel hopelessly incomplete, broad strokes in a film that requires great detail and expanse. Each scene feels like a small snippet of a longer, improvisatory exercise. Gosling's conversations with Mendes, for example, never go on for more than a few sentences before being drowned out and transitioned away via Mike Patton's overbearing score. Cianfrance noted in a recent interview that one version of Pines ran over four hours long, and you can tell: this is a fraction of a film.
The script strains for allegory, but the camera shakes and fumbles while quietly following the character, itself searching for docu-drama intimacy. It creates a sense of cognitive dissonance that the movie is never able to sort out. The ambition in the script for Pines is huge, and the performances are downright mythical, but Cianfrance's approach is fatally small.