“The Place Beyond The Pines” is not anywhere you want to go

Thu, 12/12/2013 - 3:07pm

Audiences in general, and this reviewer in particular, seem to have a problem with movies that are split in two. The granddaddy of this subgenre is, without doubt, Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” the first half of which took place during basic training at Parris Island and the second half told the story of a Marine unit desperately tracking down a sniper that’s holed up in a blasted out building. A lot of people had trouble with the structure of Kubrick’s film, and director Derek Cianfrance is seemingly attempting the same thing in “The Place Beyond The Pines,” which is available at the Island Free Library. The split structure is a hindrance because the story he tells is not nearly as involving as Kubrick’s Vietnam tale.

The first half of “Beyond the Pines” is loose, almost seemingly improvised, and uneven in tone. We meet Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a chain-smoking motorcycle stunt driver whose skin is splotched with tattoos. When performing in Schenectedy (give the movie credit for embracing its local milieu), Luke meets up with his former girlfriend, Romina, (an effective but underused Eva Mendes), and learns that he’s a dad.

Gosling seems to have entered into the Bill Murray School of underacting. He didn’t say much in “Drive,” and he was almost mute in the bloody “Only God Forgives.” When this style works (as it did in “Blue Valentine”), he can be a compelling screen presence. But here he’s a void.

Luke decides to help Romina and their child, despite her misgivings, and the career path he chooses proves to be tragic. It’s in his encounter with cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), during the commission of a crime, that the Luke Glanton story ends and the Cross saga begins. This is where the movie splits into its other half.

Cianfrance, who also directed “Blue Valentine,” is being much more ambitious here. The scope of his story traces the idea that spontaneous decisions have long-term and sometimes unforeseen consequences — something that anyone who has lived any length of time can attest to. But he directs in such a lower key that even though we can appreciate how realistic some of what happens may seem, nothing really catches our eye or grabs our attention. It also doesn’t help that the Glanton half of the movie seems meandering and improvised and the Cross half seems almost overly scripted. Cianfrance takes a different approach to each story thread.

Cross is hailed as a hero cop for a deed we can’t describe here, but there are some loose ends to his story that tarnish that gleaming badge. A unit of his corrupt buddies (led by a creepy Ray Liotta) decides to search Romina’s house for some money that Luke stole that they then bestow on the squeaky-clean Avery as a gift.

This leads Avery to a fateful decision, which then seems to lead to a charmed life. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this story may all be too good to be true.

As bleak as the first half was, the second half keeps uncovering further layers of bleakness. None of this is offset by much (or any) humor, and the depiction of young, directionless American kids living lost lives is especially unrelenting. None of the primary characters seem to have much of an emotional life, and neither do the secondary characters, such as Romina’s live-in boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), or Avery’s dad, a successful politician (Harris Yulin), or the two teenagers whose lives intersect in a strange way (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen).

Cianfrance ends on a grace note, somewhere in the pines, but you probably won’t feel uplifted.

“The Place Beyond The Pines” is rated R.