This is purely anecdotal speculation, but I think there is a subconscious tendency for many young indie filmmakers to confuse despair with profundity. That, in other words, if one presents a story seemingly rooted in moral ambiguity, anxious turmoil and conflicted and complex interpersonal relationships, that you have inherently presented the audience with complex theater. The notion of exploring deep thematic insights is inherent to the DNA of serious drama, so, as such, if we witness serious drama, we as an audience feel obligated to attempt to parse through the presented themes and extract whatever meaning we can from the narrative. Even if nothing’s there to extract. In other words, it’s ambiguity disguised as art. And of course, it’s bullsh*t.
There’s a major difference between presenting grandiose themes and feigning the art of exploring them as opposed to ACTUALLY exploring them. Just because you throw a can of red paint on a blank canvas after a terrorist attack and give a weird vague title like And Then There Were None doesn’t make you an artist. I mean, yeah sure, you’re not going to have a problem finding a bunch fart-sniffing New Yorker subscribers to ponder and debate the meaning of it all, but in reality, what the f*ck are we actually talking about? Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is that kind of movie. It presents ideas and is very proud of itself for doing so. But it doesn’t explore a damn thing.
For all its structural flaws, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s previous effort, ended up working for me because it possessed a very strong sense of narrative self. As such, the themes that emerged did so organically and effortlessly and made the tone of the film feel completely natural. The Place Beyond the Pines struck me as something from the other end of the spectrum. The film’s ambition to tackle what felt like every single literary theme known to man in about two and half hours not only fell way short in execution, but more importantly strangled the film and relieved it from saying anything meaningful.
The film itself felt like a very disjointed two act play, one in which Ryan Gosling’s and Bradley Cooper’s interaction paves the road for their two sons’ eventual collision. The overarching theme of the film seemed to me to be about how the sins of the past will always come back to haunt us. Yet by the time we get to the second generation of characters, we’re expected to feel the deep and heavy consequences the first generation has wrought for the second, and it all falls flat. The most important narrative aspect of the film, linking the two generations, ends up being razor thin. And like Blue Valentine, Cianfrance again uses a cheap literary device (flash forward as opposed to flashback this time) to attempt to flesh out the intergenerational overlap. It doesn’t work and makes the film feel wholly incomplete.
I respect Cianfrance’s ambition. And I think he holds a lot of promise. But my ultimate impression of The Place Beyond the Pines is one of a director who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is.
Grade - C