The rule of thirds
If you were feeling nice about it, you could say that Derek Cianfrance's sophomore feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is a bonus: it's basically three movies for the price of one. For that is its frankly ballsy structure, to have one kind of story that ends with the first scene of a second kind of story that ends immediately prior to a third kind of story, each of them featuring a separate protagonist: Ryan Gosling's stunt-biker-turned-bank-robber Luke Glanton, then Bradley Cooper's good-cop-in-a-sea-of-corruption Avery Cross, then Dane DeHaan's righteously-sullen-and-resentful teenager Jason.
If you're feeling less nice about it, you could also say that this structural trifurcation is an absolute disaster, and that The Place Beyond the Pines (the translation of the place-name Schenectady, where it is set) starts out as a genuinely terrific examination of masculine self-identity that's maybe a little too familiar in the narrative mechanisms it uses to dig into that theme; but who needs originality when the execution is outstanding?. Then it shifts into a mode that doesn't seem to quite fit with the first part, and is even more familiar, and maybe not as wel-executed. And then it goes someplace wildly out of key with either of the first two places, lurching into an exceptionally stupid kind of Dickensian melodrama that hides itself only by virtue of not being particularly melodramatic, and while there's little doubt that the Jason arc of the film wraps up the themes and concepts behind the whole project better than I anticipated was even possible as the Avery arc was drawing to a close, it does so with no grace, no subtlety, and without a remotely interesting story - Avery's tale of one good cop bucking the system and risking himself in the face of all the dirty cops is straight from the files of Cliché City PD, but at least it's grabby on its own merits. Jason's story - which would unnecessarily spoil the first two to even describe it - is not, and the only thing it has that keeps it from drowning in its own excretions is DeHaan, a 26-year-old actor playing 16, and one of my absolute favorite under-30 actors that nobody much talks about: he gave one of very best movie-elevating performances of 2012 in Chronicle, and he's made some very smart choices of directors and/or scripts since then. The inner conflicts he suggests without hammering on them are far classier and deeper than the last third of The Place Beyond the Pines justifies, frankly, and insofar as I spent any part of the last half-hour not rolling my eyes, it was entirely do to the performance and subsequent legitimisation of a character badly in need of it.
Still, that's not the difference between a bad movie and a good one, but a bad movie and one that, reluctantly, I was able to tolerate. Any way you slice it, The Place Beyond the Pines spins spectacularly and ineffectively out of control as it barrels to the finish, and 2 hours & 20 minutes is an awful lot of movie to get through when it becomes obvious relatively early on that the writers' (Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder) very earnest and bold attempt at making a sprawling generational epic about inherited guilt and the (in)ability to atone and forgive is not going to work out for them.
It is by no means a worthless movie, though: the opening portion (which I think is also the longest), is genuinely exciting, if not quite up to the last time Gosling and Cianfrance worked together, on the lacerating and perfect relationship drama Blue Valentine. It's still a director-actor pairing that is, I'd say, as important as any other in current cinema (though I look forward to seeing Gosling's next team-up with Nicolas Winding Refn), and while it's a bit show-offy for the actor, all tattoos and bleached hair and all kinds of distrating business with cigarettes, it's still amazing work from one of the most reliably magnetic screen actors working in the English language.
Without obviously changing his style at any point in the film, Cianfrance lavishes the most attentive filmmaking on the first sequence, with a couple of vigorous long takes, one of them a real doozy that opens the movie with Luke walking through a carnival and into a tent where he hops on a bike and goes right into his cage ride (the hand-off between Gosling and the stuntman is as old-fashioned as they come, but the whole sequence is so electric and fast-paced that it only registers if you're looking for holes, and even then in a "that's how they did it, huh", way, nothing that breaks the film), and one of the best bank robbery scenes in recent memory. It's a brilliantly dynamic crime thriller through and through, and Gosling's tortured relationship with Romina (Eva Mendes), the mother of his unexpected infant son, is exactly as much sober-minded character drama as the genre can support, or requires.
The second third is a little weaker: Bradley Cooper is certainly no Ryan Gosling, though I'd say it's just as certain that this is his best performance ever (vastly more complicated and shaded than his Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook). And the plot beats are even more ancient than the ones in the first act: "disaffected outsider tries to redeem himself through fatherhood, lapses into crime" has been done before, but the moral dilemmas involved in standing up against a culture of police corruption was over-familiar by the 1950s, and where the first portions has many nice excesses of style, the second is more like a solid work by a talented filmmaker pacing himself; it's handsomely-mounted but in any way exceptional, save that Cooper is so much better than I'd have thought possible.
But then the last part shows up, and... it's just bad. Emory Cohen shows up as the secondary lead, and he is hilariously overwrought in his sub-sub-Brandoesque mumbling; Cianfrance starts to lose any grip on what he's doing with the camera, or how the editing works (there's a party scene that's miserably-framed), and the story bids farewell to anything resembling actual humanity in a desperate bid to marry the first two sequences to a more specific, unified message than just "men break themselves trying to live up to an artificial idea of masculinity", to actually give some shape to the whole messy thing. Well, it does end up with that shape, but it might have been better that it didn't; it ends on such a note of half-baked contrivance that it's easy to forget how much was actually good leading into that moment. And it makes it hell to try and say what The Place Beyond the Pines is actually like as a movie: the good parts are so good, and the bad parts are so bad, that there's not even a way to calculate an average. Don't pay any attention to my score; this movie can't be reduced so easily, and insofar as I'm "recommending" it, it's mostly because a top-drawer Gosling performance is worth a lot of suffering.