Writer-director Derek Cianfrance has a flair for the sublimely saccharine. In his 2010 film, Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling plays an overzealous lover who breaks out a ukulele and tells his girl he's going to reveal his "special talent" of "singing stupid." This announcement elicits a whole spectrum of gut reactions: He is winsome, pitiful, grating, mortifying, and then suddenly winsome again. His song is so surprisingly beautiful that you don't want it to stop.
In The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance paints with the same emotional palette, but on a much larger canvas. Running almost two and a half hours, Pines is a melodrama, a multigenerational epic, a heist film and a motorcycle-fetish movie all rolled into one. It's overly ambitious, but good God, look at Gosling! He doesn't sing. He doesn't need to. He's a ripped, inked, peroxide-dipped carnie-cum-bandit, the face of Handsome Luke & the Heartthrobs, a troupe of motorcycle acrobats who ride upside-down in a cage called the Globe of Death. Cianfrance has described Luke as the kind of guy the Shangri-Las used to sing about, and indeed, he radiates tragic gutter glory. In a series of spectacular single-take chase scenes, the film follows his descent. The deeper he goes, the more we mourn the Leader of the Pack.
Pines unfolds as a triptych. Its tonal shifts are sometimes disorienting, and the action is front-loaded. In part one, Luke learns that his last fling has led to the birth of a son. He quits the carnival in an effort to woo the child's mother (Eva Mendes). When that doesn't work, he starts robbing banks. Soon he crosses paths with Avery (Bradley Cooper), the ambitious cop who's the subject of the film's second story.
Throughout the film, Cianfrance makes Luke and Avery mirror one another. Both are celebrated for their courage but beset with secret cowardice, both feel guilty for their failures as fathers and sons, and both try to correct bad mistakes with worse ones, creating unintended consequences for the next generation. The film's third section leaps forward 15 years to find their teenage sons in a star-crossed showdown.
Blue Valentine's fractured, nonlinear narrative helped obscure a thin plot, but Pines' straightforward chronological march emphasizes this problem. Perhaps Pines would work better as a cable series; I wanted to spend more time with Luke and Avery, just watching their day-to-day activities. With so many people and ideas flying around, the contrivances start piling up for Cianfrance. Yet these flaws seem like mere stumbling blocks for this emerging auteur. The film is so textural and dreamy that I would've stuck around for more. That is Cianfrance's special talent.