The Place Beyond the Pines reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

Derek Cianfrance must be a pimp to get a project like The Place Beyond Pines green-lighted. Its less than compelling story about a criminal (Ryan Gosling) and a police offer (Bradley Cooper) whose lives cross (a newspaper headline identifies them as “Moto-Bandit and Hero Cop”) is dragged out in that same enervating style Cianfrance used in the banal, meandering Blue Valentine.

Averse to narrative efficiency (and editing), Cianfrance insists on vague, rambling scenes supposedly full of verisimiltude and working-class local color. He prefers brooding protagonists and characters who, if not inarticulate, repeat indistinct, half-revealing phrases or sudden apercus.

A lowlife tells the Moto-Bandit “If you ride like lighting you’re gonna crash like thunder,” a WTF insight that, laughably, Cianfrance uses for prophecy. As his title The Place Beyond the Pines suggests, Cianfrance has poetic delusions and combines them with an inane approach to storytelling. He seems not to know he’s dealing with clichés which makes him the perfect directorial partner for Gosling’s seething, blondined phoniness.

After Blue Valentine, Gosling and Cianfrance continue their petulance duet, here attempting a petulant modern epic spanning several generations of father/son disconnection and consequences, yet without any narrative drive other than the writer-director’s cussed insistence. Cianfrance tells this story his way–not a quick or efficient way. He’s so dramaturgically illiterate he fails to achieve psychologically or experiential connections between his disparate protagonists. Moto Bandit and Hero Cop are merely conceptual conceits that Cianfrance tries heightening into some kind of mythic status: first by depicting their lives sequentially rather than interlinked, then rushing ahead with the lives of their offsprings, boys who reject their fatherly role-models and become a new pair of laughable clichés.

The Place Beyond the Pines suggests three bad movies in one (The Bandit, the Cop and the Boys would be a better title) because Cianfrance, despite his artistic arrogance doesn‘t know how to cohere his overwrought ideas about class, ethnicity, crime, fate, love, parenthood. Fortunately, this week’s release of Criterion’s newly remastered version of Michael Powell’s 1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp exemplifies the way a modern epic can evoke ideas about national character. Powell’s patriotic mythos and personal romanticism make a finer combination than Cianfrance’s reach for pessimism and profundity.

In Colonel Blimp, Powell’s megalomania was perfectly matched with the subject of British jingoism personified by Roger Livesey’s military hero who is challenged by Anton Walbrook’s brother from another culture and Deborah Kerr’s three stages of Woman. One of the most ostentatiously idiosyncratic epics ever filmed, Colonel Blimp succeeds through expressive visual language. Cianfrance is burdened by indie amateurishness that tries passing for idiosyncrasy. Instead, his muted, inchoate technique highlights his actors then defeats them. Bradley Cooper as Hero Cop and Eva Mendes as Moto-Bandit’s ethnic babymama show strong emotion yet Cianfrance’s stock characterizations deprive them of moments that Walbrook and Kerr made meaningful and memorable.

Cianfrance is hardly a psychological or atmospheric director. His style is not phantasmagorical like Powell’s, just nihilistic melodrama and dark realism; part Christopher Nolan, part James Gray–the wrong parts. He makes the film’s events oddly telescoped, predictable and pointless. It takes chutzpah to attempt a modern epic when one’s methods are so puny.

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