Lost in the Woods

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Focus Features

The title of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is the English translation of the Iroquois word “Schenectady,” and I’m thinking that the poor little upstate New York town shouldn’t have to bear the weight first of Charlie Kaufman’s funereal Synecdoche, New York and now this adrenalized Greek tragedy. The director calls it “a classic tale of the sins of the father being visited upon the son” and has fashioned it as a triptych. In the first segment, mysterious, blond, tattooed biker Luke (Ryan Gosling) discovers that an old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes), has given birth to his son, and decides to rob banks to win her back from her stable, responsible beau (Mahershala Ali). The next part centers on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a policeman who’s having a terrible time recovering from a decisive encounter with Luke—and who, as a result, is driven to pose hard moral questions about his and other cops’ behavior. Part three takes place fifteen years later, when both Avery’s and Luke’s sons are teenagers grappling with very different but entwined legacies. Some of the key scenes take place amid the pines outside town, where different characters face momentous choices about the direction of their lives—and it was during one of them that I thought it might be time for a new phrase to lessen the pain of crazy-­ambitious but stultifying movies: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Schenectady.”

Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine also suffered from a certain monotonousness, as well as an overcaffeinated handheld camera that was always getting in the characters’ faces. But that movie had a pair of protagonists, one of whom was played by Michelle ­Williams, whose brave performance was a study in romantic ambivalence—and the anguish that comes from seemingly endless self-protection against an out-of-control mate (Gosling). There was real attraction and repulsion, push and pull, in those scenes. The Place Beyond the Pines has a much wider canvas, but the segments are essentially monodramas, so sketchily written that the big moments feel less like recognizable human behavior than recognizable screenwriter overreaching.

Gosling’s scenes are the most vivid, of course: It’s a hot-dog character, and he has the most irresistible screen presence. And he has a terrific henchman in Ben ­Mendel­sohn, the creepy chinless psycho from Animal Kingdom, here playing a character who doesn’t quite track but is always on the tantalizing border between convivial and corrosive. But this once potentially major actor is repeating himself, striking star poses with a face that has become a mask of tragicomedy—the goofy smile somehow making the features droop so that he looks most doomed when most happy. Gosling sports a tattoo of a dagger with a drop of blood clearly meant to ­resemble a tear—and it’s like a placard reading JAMES DEAN WAS HERE. He’s a martyr to Cianfrance, who hasn’t managed to make Luke’s obsession to be with his son even vaguely convincing. Gosling makes the character work at the cost of looking fatuous.

Cooper has a couple of fine, intense moments, but Avery is so underwritten that you wonder if half his scenes were cut. And he’s supposed to be the movie’s fulcrum, the character who connects the past and future. Cianfrance puts Avery at the center of a corruption plot in which Ray Liotta and a couple of other mean-looking dudes hassle Mendes’s Romina for money. He gets a lot of mileage out of Liotta’s ravaged visage—the actor’s expressions are scariest when they’re most tender—but it’s all, dramatically speaking, beside the point, a lame device to get Avery’s conscience churning. The final segment features an extraordinarily intense young actor named Dane DeHaan as Luke’s morosely undermotivated son, but by then the movie’s wheels and pulleys are squeaking so loudly that no performer could be heard above the din (or the audience’s groans).

Smart directors like Terrence Malick, and before him Stanley Kubrick, know enough to keep their thoughts to themselves and not spoil the illusion of profundity. But Cianfrance gives interviews in which he says he’s wanted to make a “triptych” ever since he saw Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoléon. But Napoléon, though sprawling, isn’t a three-part drama—it just has a battlefield climax with three screens. No wonder this nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie feels as if it spread beyond its borders. The Place Beyond the Pines is like a clear-cut forest, full of empty space.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance.
Focus Features. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Lost in the Woods