Following her cameo in Leos Carax’s astonishing Holy Motors, Eva Mendes gives one of the more memorable performances of her career thus far in Derek Cianfrance’s woefully self-serious The Place Beyond the Pines. As Romina, the erstwhile love interest of motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling), Mendes engagingly conveys the conflicting desires of a woman who can still be momentarily swayed by lust and danger, despite being the new mother of Luke’s bastard son, Jason. She is the most consistent presence in the film, which is broken up into three clearly delineated movements, and yet, tellingly, neither the director nor the script, co-written by Cianfrance, Darius Marder, and Ben Coccio, give her much to do but be scared and protective as this rigid epic moves along.
The lack of effort put into Romina by anyone but Mendes is essentially a matter of design, as The Place Beyond the Pines is first and foremost a study of masculine potency, of fathers and sons. Moved to care for Jason, likely because Romina has taken up with a more responsible man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke quits his job as a carnival daredevil to become a bank robber with new friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who has perfected a shrewd getaway plan. Things go well until Robin quits the game, leaving Luke to do a stick-up job on his own which subsequently leads to a rousing car chase and Luke’s shooting death at the hands of Officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), himself a new father. Branded a hero by his department and the local community, Avery is seemingly rewarded by his fellow cops, including old-timer Deluca (Ray Liotta), with stolen funds from the search of Romina’s home, a benefit of the job Avery isn’t fond of, partially due to his upbringing under liberal judge father, Al (Harris Yulin).
Cianfrance puts stress on the role of father figures, minding the slight gap between the end result of an attentive, educated father (Avery) and an absent father (Luke), but his worldview is far more unduly cynical than that dichotomy. Though he is happy to turn over his corrupt colleagues to the district attorney (Bruce Greenwood), Avery uses the case as bribery to secure his place at the DA’s office following his impending graduation from law school, which leads both to his divorce from his wife (Rose Byrne) and his eventual ascension to the national political platform. Corruption and manipulation are, in Cianfrance’s world, a natural extension of man’s base behavior; crime and aggression are treated as elementally passed on in the blood.
Heaving more testosterone than a Texas gun show, The Place Beyond the Pines wears its grimness very well, amplified in its gloom by a sufficiently moody score by experimental musician and former Faith No More singer Mike Patton. The upstate setting offers vibrantly earthy environs for Cianfance and DP Sean Bobbitt to focus on, and the director has an obvious talent for action, as Luke and Robin’s robberies are an indisputable high point. The inevitability of the drama, however, renders the narrative stodgy and forced, and the crucial quiet moments, of which there are many, feel hugely laborious. By excising any looseness, any sense of hope, optimism, or humor, Cianfrance makes his drama feel wholly false, realistically stylized but guided by a near-cryptic pessimism.
The director’s lugubrious timbre becomes shrill by the time the film switched focus to Avery’s thuggish teenage son, AJ (Emory Cohen), who coincidentally befriends Jason (Dane DeHaan), who has grown into a smart but lonely stoner. AJ’s interest in drugs and power are obvious to the point of cloying, and his elevated bullying of Jason eventually reveals the whole sorted mess of their intertwining past, with Jason laying all the blame for the deception at Romina’s feet. Despite the film’s empty epic scale, the cast makes most the whole mess sing, at least for the most part; Mendelsohn, Ali and DeHaan deserve as much credit as Gosling and Cooper for dulling the script’s risible sense of severity. It’s the same problem that plagued Cianfrance’s breakthrough, Blue Valentine, but the filmmaker’s tin-eared fatalism has only swelled in the two years since that film, making for a particularly stuffy and proudly pained experience. Cianfrance’s narrative fascination with learned or assumed behavior and interest in naturalistic imagery belies the film’s guilt-ridden tone and belief in unswayable fate. The Place Beyond the Pines is a film for sinners that can’t even bother to see the fun and comfort in sinning.
The Blu-ray/DVD release includes deleted/extended scenes and a commentary track from the director.