American filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) begins his latest effort, The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), with a majestic long take, following Ryan Gosling's tattooed motorcycle stunt rider Luke Glanton as he works his way through a crowded small town fairground towards his assembled fans. Unfortunately, this isn't quite the portent of grandeur to come that it should have been. Cianfrance, aided by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, peaks far too early this time round, offering up a sweeping three-parter that only ever 'sweeps' when in the company of its resident James Dean, before stuttering to a crawl.When brazen bad boy Glanton finds out that he's father to the child of local girl Romina (Eva Mendes), he reluctantly turns to a life of crime to support the two. Teaming up with forest-dwelling oddball Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Glanton robs bank after bank before running into local cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Cross himself has his own set of worries, with corruption destroying his beloved police force from within and an injury picked up whilst on patrol affecting his home life with wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and newborn son AJ. Over time, Glanton and Cross' lives become inextricably intertwined, with their teenage offspring even attending the same high school together.
The Place Beyond the Pines spans almost two decades in time from start to finish; beginning with Luke's son, Jason, a mere infant, before showing him exploring his father's criminal legacy, on the cusp of adulthood himself. Such grand scope would certainly be commendable, were it not itself a detractor from the three wildly inconsistent chapters on offer here. The first, a Springsteen-fuelled tale of duty and honour, is far-and-away the best of the lot, with Gosling every part the 'rebel with a cause' he was cast to play. Mendes is equally impressive, drawing the audience's sympathy whilst at the same time hopelessly lovestruck with her unconventional peroxide knight in leather armour.
Sadly, as we emerge into act two, Cianfrance begins to lose his plot. Cooper, though impressive in recent outings, is instantly unlikeable as the 'butter wouldn't melt' Cross, repulsed by the corruption in his own precinct, yet with lofty ambitions of one day transferring his skills to the world of politics (blame his snakelike father Al, played by Harris Yulin, if you're looking for motivation). Perhaps this middle section is the true crux of The Place Beyond the Pines; a starkly shot, fatalist daydream where sons are unavoidably bound to the sins of their fathers (see act three for more). Regardless, we're still forced to expend far too time and effort on a co-protagonist with less than half of the enigmatic complexity of Gosling's Glanton, and none of the charm.
The film's final third serves as the rusted nail in its overambitious, self-regarding pine coffin. The fact that neither Dane DeHaan nor Emory Cohen, as teenage Jason and AJ, look anything like their respective paters is a moot point. What isn't moot, however, is just how dull and predictable Cianfrance's family drama has somehow become by this late stage of the narrative, especially considering that magnificent Bobbitt opening. Cohen's bizarre 'gangsta' parody cements AJ's status as the weakest of all The Place Beyond the Pines' myriad of stock characters, proving once again that an ensemble cast can only do so much with (at best) familiar, (at worst) flimsy material.