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TORONTO – In 2010, Derek Cianfrance seduced the independent film community with his stellar debut, “Blue Valentine.” The heartbreaking drama contrasted the beginning and end of a young couple’s marriage through Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams’ stellar performances. It became a staple on year-end critic's top 10 lists and landed Williams her second Oscar nomination. One of the reasons the picture resonated with so many moviegoers and critics was Cianfrance’s remarkable skill at creating honest and intimate moments with his actors. Unfortunately, It’s with sincere regret that I report Cianfrance’s latest endeavor, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” doesn’t measure up to the cinematic standards he set for himself just two years ago.
An original screenplay by Ciafrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, “Pines” is a three-act tragedy with Shakespearean overtones set in – of all places – Schenectady, New York.* The first act introduces Luke (Gosling), a motorcycle driver who travels the country performing stunts at county fairs. Following one of his gigs he recognizes Romina (Eva Mendes), a one-night stand from his stop in town a year before. He eventually discovers that hook up produced a son, Jason, he was unaware of. Things are complicated, however, as Romina is now living with her new boyfriend Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Surprising even himself, Luke quits his stunt gig to settle in the area to be close to his newly discovered offspring. Romina doesn’t make things easy as she passive aggressively lets Luke in and out of his son’s life. Concurrently, Luke randomly meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a creepy loner who is intrigued by our hero’s bike riding skills. Robin lets Luke crash on his property and provides him some much needed work. Realizing Luke is fixated on making significantly more money to impress Romina and provide for his baby boy, Robin sells him on a plan where they team up to rob a few banks in the area. It turns out this was Robin’s motivation to befriend Luke all along. He’d had success as a bank robber a few years before, but had to stop when he came close to getting caught. If the duo worked together they could make a killing.
*Full disclosure, I grew up in Guilderland, N.Y. and Altamont, N.Y., a town and village that are suburbs of Albany and border Schenectady. Needless to say, I know this area like the back of my hand. Whether Cianfrance has depicted it accurately is very much up to debate.
At first Robin’s plan works to perfection. Luke robs the banks and Robin assists with the perfect getaway. Luke tries to give some of his newfound cash to Romina, but she’ll have none of it fearing Kofi’s reaction. Things come to a head when Luke and Kofi have a confrontation audiences will see coming a mile away. Romina’s dramatic reaction sends Luke over the edge and against Robin’s advice he starts to push his luck attempting trickier robberies. During one getaway he pays the price of acting on his own and finds himself cornered in a residential house with the police moving in. At this point we’re introduced to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who pursues Luke into the home. Realizing he may not get out of this alive, Luke locks himself in an upstairs bedroom and calls Romina. He begs a confused Romina not to ever tell Jason about what he'd done or what happened to him. At the same time, Cross intercedes and breaks down the door. Two shots are fired. Exit Luke’s story and enter Avery’s.
The son of a prominent New York state judge (Harris Yulin), Avery became a police officer instead of using his law degree to follow in his father’s political footsteps. Even though Avery is considered a hero and given a commendation from the police department for his bravery it’s very clear both his father and his wife (a barely used Rose Byrne) want him to use this event as an excuse to retire from the force. The rest of this act finds Luke attempting to remain a police officer while his corrupt co-workers try to railroad him into assisting their illegal activities.
The third act takes a dramatic jump in time where we are introduced to a much older Jason (“Chronicle’s” Dane DeHaan) and Avery’s own son AJ (“Smash’s” Emory Cohen) who – surprise – attend the same high school. Cue the film’s most predictable story arc and at times the most unbelievable. Cianfrance and his co-writers make some dramatic assumptions that are just too hard to swallow.
In a quick introduction before the screening, Cianfrance revealed he’d worked on the “Pines” screenplay for a number of years before he’d even started “Valentine.” That may be one reason the script feels like a worked over mash-up of too many familiar ideas and movie cliches. Cianfrance is clearly a very talented filmmaker, but he just overreaches with this one. Thankfully, his ensemble’s strong work (notably Cooper, Mendhelson and DeHaan) help make “Pines” feel more like a step back than a sophomore misfire.
Commercially, “Pines” may have genre thriller elements, but it’s clearly an art house release. That being said, with Gosling’s growing popularity it could gross $10-15 million domestically (slightly higher than “Valentine”), but it’s not a film that will have broad commercial appeal. There is also no need for any distributor to rush it to theaters for a year-end release. “Pines” is a limited awards season player at best.