by Coop Cooper
Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta… That’s a pretty decent cast for a wide-release Hollywood blockbuster. But that’s not what “The Place Beyond the Pines” is. Audiences might expect a tense thriller in the vein of “Heat” or “Drive” but if that’s the impression the previews and commercials are giving you, I’m going to stop you right there. “Pines” is a slow and plodding indie effort that wants to be something meaningful and point out a big problem plaguing American society. It doesn’t quite cut it, even though it features some fine acting.
A traveling motorcycle stuntman/carny, Luke (Ryan Gosling), discovers a fling he had a year before with a waitress (Eva Mendes) produced a son He feels guilt and a desperate obligation to provide for his unexpected family so he quits the circus and resorts to robbing banks. His brash actions and violent nature begin to strain his relationships. Eventually his increasingly risky scores puts him on a collision course with a police officer, Avery (Bradley Cooper), who himself is in cahoots with a band of corrupt cops. Avery’s own personal guilt begin to eat at him and he begins to make tough decisions that could make or break his future. In time, the actions of these two men intersect in surprising ways as their past actions prove to have long-term consequences.
This movie has obvious similarities with Paul Haggis’s overrated “Crash” (2004) but is slightly better in story and execution. It is an episodic narrative that follows generations of these families and supposedly how the actions of the father ultimately pass down to the son for better or for worse. It’s a somewhat depressing and realistic notion that fathers, even loving ones, can be terrible influences on their sons. However, there is another truth that this film ignores which is that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own actions. It’s one thing to blame crime and bad decisions on bad parenting but that doesn’t account for the millions of kids who become good citizens, even great leaders despite their hardships.
The story of the children of these main characters is where the film begins to go off the rails. Luke’s kid becomes a shy, sensitive high school loner who dabbles in drug dealing. Avery’s kid becomes a thuggish heel who gets one quick moment of pathos before he returns being an unlikable jerk. Their drama unfolds as a forced coincidence which could’ve been interesting in an impoverished, intimate urban environment but does not feel genuine in the more affluent setting. Like “Crash,” it pulls off some nice dramatic scenes but can’t pull it all together without it feeling like a clumsy guilt trip.
On the upside, the film also suggests that the good qualities of the fathers are inherent in their kids… but it never explores the idea enough to justify the result.
So far, the most important aspect of the film is that it is the first feature to receive Oscar buzz this year. The exceptional performances don’t disappoint even when the story does, so it does have some credibility, but there weren’t enough solid moments to knock it out of the park. Gosling steals the movie, but even he has done better work with the same type of role and when he does get a nomination it will be for something truly exceptional.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” hasn’t gotten a wide release and with the star power behind it, that should tell you something. It’s an indie movie with an indie story. There is no flash or excitement, only minimalist performances and some relatable characters. It’s bittersweet resolution is not satisfying or powerful enough to warrant the attention of large theater chains or mass audiences.
Like “Crash,” this genre of film is designed to stimulate the good human within you, which is certainly a commendable goal for a work of fiction. Unfortunately, this genre also runs the risk of becoming heavy-handed and preachy. “Pines” does it better but not good enough. It will probably become as forgettable as “Crash” did once it’s timely cultural outrage ran out of steam and its coincidences were exposed as hackneyed upon second viewing. Spike Lee directed great examples of this type of drama a few times but you can only take so much cultural and societal guilt before these films wear on you and make you long for a mindless popcorn movie.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars