Writer-director Derek Cianfrance has a flair for the sublimely saccharine. In his 2010 film Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling plays an overzealous lover who breaks out a ukulele and tells his girl he’s going to reveal his “special talent,” of “singing stupid.” This announcement elicits a whole spectrum of gut responses in an instant: He is winsome, pitiful, grating, mortifying, then suddenly winsome again. His song is so surprisingly beautiful, you don’t want it to stop.
In The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance is painting with the same emotional palate, but on a much larger canvas. Running almost two and a half hours, Pines is a melodrama, multigenerational epic, heist film, and motorcycle-fetish movie all rolled into one. Arguably, it’s a bit overambitious, but good God, look at Gosling! He doesn’t sing. He doesn’t need to. He is a ripped, inked, peroxided carny-cum-bandit, the erstwhile frontman of “Handsome Luke and the Heartthrobs,” a traveling troupe of motorcycle acrobats who ride crisscross and upside down in a metal cage called the “Globe of Death.” Cianfrance has described Luke as the kind of guy the Shangri-Las used to sing about, and indeed, he radiates tragic gutter glory. In a series of spectacular single-take chase scenes, the film follows Luke’s descent. The deeper he goes, the more we mourn the “Leader of the Pack.”
Be warned that all the action and excitement (i.e., all the Gosling) is front-loaded. Pines develops as a triptych, and its tonal shifts are sometimes disorienting. In part one, Luke learns that his last fling in Schenectady has led to the birth of a son by Romina (Mendes). He quits the carnival in an effort to woo her, and when that doesn’t work, he starts robbing banks. With his lovelorn gaze and ill-gotten cash, he comes close to winning her back, but then he gets cocky and bungles a stickup – crossing paths with an ambitious rookie cop, Avery (Cooper), who’s the subject of the film’s second story.
Without giving too much away, Luke and Avery are mirrored souls (in close-up, Cooper and Gosling look surprisingly alike) celebrated for their courage but beset with secret cowardice. Both feel guilty for their failures as fathers and sons, and both try to correct bad mistakes with worse ones, setting in motion unintended consequences for the next generation. (Dads just can’t win in Cianfrance’s movies.) Part three leaps forward 15 years to find their teenage sons in a star-crossed showdown.
If Valentine’s fractured, nonlinear narrative helped obscure a thin plot, Pines’ straightforward chronological march seems to emphasize the same problem. Perhaps Pines would work better as a cable series; I wanted to spend more time riding around Schenectady with Luke and Avery, just watching their day-to-day activities. With so many people and ideas flying around (and the fussy imperative of having to actually end the story), the contrivances start piling up. Yet these flaws seem like mere stumbling blocks for this emerging auteur. The film is so velvety textured and dreamy, I would’ve stuck around for more. That is Cianfrance’s special talent.