For a crumbling edifice of the American dream, the city of Schenectady, New York, does seem to inspire Hollywood — or at least, indie filmmakers — to create ambitious projects. Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s postmodern classic (“To say that [it] is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now,” gushed Manohla Dargis in The New York Times), looked at one man’s madness in his single-minded quest to capture life in a play. It stretched the theme of individual passion that is a central part of American culture (Schenectady was also the birthplace of General Electric after Thomas Edison, an American hero not only for his inventions, but his individual success, moved his operations there). Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, which gets its title from the Mohawk meaning of the city’s name, looks at that other central cultural trope: the family.
The family is the carrot that America has always dangled for its people as the culmination of individual success. As the idea of the family unit changed beyond recognition — it is no accident that Modern Family is the most successful sitcom in recent years — it has morphed from being an end in itself to a means to the larger goal of happiness. Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine, took an intimate look at the destruction of that happily ever after, juxtaposed with the heady days of its creation. In Pines, that happily ever after is what Luke Glanton (Gosling) wants more than anything, enough to quit his job as an itinerant stunt biker and settle down in Schenectady, where a previous fling with a local waitress (Mendes) has resulted in the birth of a son. Life has moved on, however, and his son is part of another family, in which Glanton is not welcome.
Thanks in large part to Gosling and Mendes’ performances, the first act of the film works as a gripping character study, as Luke begins robbing banks in order to support the family he wants to make his own. Much like Valentine, Cianfrance’s ability to succinctly capture his character’s layered personality makes it seem like a compelling short story, working its way up to its inevitable climax. Once that comes, however, a third of the way into the film, the lens widens and the film moves its focus to Avery Cross (Cooper), the policeman who finally puts an end to Luke’s life of crime. This is when the scale of Cianfrance’s ambition gradually becomes clear, for Pines is not the intimate slice-of-life piece that the first act seems to be, but a sprawling epic triptych spanning two generations that does full justice to the grandiosity of its title.
The film deals with the consequences of past actions on future generations, with the sins of the father being paid for by the son. As emotionally wrenching as Valentine, the latter stories, however, lack the assuredness of the first. A major reason is the acting: while Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen are competent as the sons of Luke and Avery, an indie epic in the mould of Synecdoche or Sidney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead requires a stellar ensemble cast to keep the audience involved through to the end. The Place Beyond The Pines is a great film, but soured by the feeling one gets in the end that its director might have bitten off more than he could chew.