“The Place Beyond the Pines” review

It is a dilemma as old as the town of Schenectady, N.Y., itself: do we punish failure or reward ambition? In his new movie, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance aims high, forgoing many of the rules of screenwriting and Hollywood cinema. The movie sets out to be a new take on familiar genres from its very first shot, a long take full of neon lights, the sounds of carnival rides and a cage of death full of three revving, whirling motorcycles. We’ve seen the long take before but never with a bleach-blond, tattooed Ryan Gosling as a trashy, edgy carny at its center and certainly never from inside the cage of death. But while technically brilliant, the shot offers almost nothing in terms of story, plot or character. We learn one thing: that Gosling’s character, Luke, is a motorcycle rider, but that is about it. In a way, this first scene reflects the whole movie: impressive, yes, but successful? I’m not sure.

It’s hard to summarize the plot of “Pines” without spoiling some of the many twists, but it’s safe to say that the trailer is misleading. The movie is not an epic struggle between two of our best young actors, Oscar nominees Gosling and Bradley Cooper. They only share one scene together. “Pines” is basically divided into three parts, and only Eva Mendes (“The Other Guys”) features in all three. The third section focuses mainly on younger actors Dane DeHaan (“Chronicle”) and Emory Cohen (“Smash”), and there’s a reason they aren’t on the poster. While DeHaan is more than capable of carrying a movie, Cohen isn’t, and I was more than ready for the two hours and 20 minutes to be over by the time Cohen and his faked, thick Long Island accent showed up.

That’s not to say I loathed the movie or even disliked it. I respect the creative liberties Cianfrance took, and it’s the script, not his direction, that is the problem. The acting from the leads is understated and real, and a turn as Gosling’s shady-but-kind-hearted employer by Ben Mendelsohn is one of my favorite performances this year. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does a masterful job at capturing the many different atmospheres of Schenectady: the touring carnival, the diner where Mendes’ character works at, the banks, the police stations and, most importantly, the endless pine forests on the outskirts of town. His camera is always observant and never intrusive; his work here is one of the best parts of the film.

This is the first movie review I’ve written since the great Roger Ebert passed away, and I found myself wondering as I wrote this, would he have given it a thumb’s up? For me, it is a thumb perfectly, maddeningly sideways. The other great film critic, Pauline Kael, famously said she never saw a movie twice. “Pines” is a movie I thought I wouldn’t watch again yet one that I’m almost positive would improve on a repeat view. And for that, I hope everyone sees it at least once (and if you’re still unconvinced, just remember: shirtless Gosling).

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