Kurt Vonnegut had this rule about writing that I always think about whenever I make one of my abortive attempts at creativity: Start as close to the end as possible. I found myself thinking about that a lot in the hours after seeing Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, which starts about as far from its ending as possible and suffers for it.
Though The Place Beyond the Pines is not one of those movies that is overly reliant on a plot twist, it is still sort of impossible to get at a real conversation about the film's strengths and flaws without spoiling the plot. For now, let it suffice to say that the film is not really what you would expect from the advertising campaign, and that it is really more like three films stitched together, running consecutively, than one flowing narrative.
When we begin our journey through the lives of these characters, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is back in Schenectady with his traveling carnival after a year or so one the road. An encounter with his old fling Romina (Eva Mendes) leads to the revelation that he has a kid he knew nothing about. Romina has moved on and has a new man in his life, but Luke decides he needs to step up and take care of his family, even if that's not what they want. A chance encounter with a low-life auto mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn)leads to a lucrative but dangerous side-job as a bank robber. Eventually, Luke's crime spree will force him into a confrontation with local cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a law-school grad alienating his wife and his father with his dedication to his job on the force.
That's the movie that you're familiar with from the commercials, but's really only the first part of Cianfrance's look at fathers and sons and how the decisions made by the former impact the latter. Among other problems with this focus is that it gives remarkably short-shrift to the female characters in this world. Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne are completely wasted in poorly-conceived and thankless roles. It's clear Cianfrance gave little thought to their characters' motivations, thoughts, and feelings. Byrne especially is just a functionary, wholly designed to inject conflict into her husband's life. This is especially surprising given Cianfrance's last film was Blue Valentine, which excellently explored both halves of a failing marriage.
The movie's third act is a mess, disjointed and abruptly inserted into the narrative. It also shifts the focus onto two new performers, one of whom (Smash's Emory Cohen) is either an incredibly convincing meathead, or an actual meathead, I can't determine. Either way Cohen's character is so off-putting and unrecognizably human as to render the whole enterprise absurd. It's impossible to care what happens to him. Dane Dehaan is much better, and fits right in with the expert performances given by Cooper, Gosling, Mendelsohn, and Ray Liotta as a corrupt cop, but not even all these great performers can save a messy script without nearly as much to say as it thinks it does.
I brought up Vonnegut's rule at the beginning of this piece for a reason. If anyone here watches The Place Beyond the Pines, I'd like you to consider how it would impact the movie if it were to start with the third act, with perhaps a few flashbacks to the other two acts to fill in background as needed. I submit that it would make for a much more interesting viewing experience.