Split Narrative: Derek Cianfrance Gets Pulled Apart

City Pulse | March 25, 2013
An unbalanced dual narrative plays out in Derek Cianfrance’s (“Blue Valentine”) unsteady attempt to extract universal truths about unintended legacies passed down from father to son. Schenectady, New York is the setting of the film’s Iroquois Indian-inspired title, where a cross-generational crime drama unfolds.

The ever-impressive Ryan Gosling introduces the film’s first half as the heavily tattooed “Handsome” Luke, a nomadic motorcyclist working in a travelling circus. Luke rides with two other highly skilled bikers inside the fabled Ball of Death. Fear is not in Luke’s chemical makeup. A braless visit by Romina (Eva Mendes), a conquest from the last time he passed through town, seems to offer the laconic stud a return to pleasures past. However, Romina’s objective is to let Luke know he is the father of her child. Not that Romina wants anything from Luke; she is happily living with a man who is helping raise Luke’s son. Acting on patriarchal instinct, Luke quits his job. He announces to Romina that he will remain in town to help out with the baby in any way he can. Mostly, Luke just wants to spend time with his young son. Necessity, the mother of bad luck, lands Luke in the company of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a mechanic, successful bank robber, and hermit. Robin has much respect for Luke’s unique “skillset” on a motorcycle. Bank robberies ensue. The audience is hooked.

A jarring narrative jump places our outlaw protagonist with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a small town cop. The film’s involuntary comparison between Ryan Gosling’s and Bradley Cooper’s characters doesn't favor Cooper. The split narrative effect functions as a bait-and-switch that breaks the film into a hobbled victim. The floor falls out from the movie.

With his own personal connection to Luke, Avery battles corruption in the local police department with the advise of his ex-cop father. Avery leverages the situation to secure an Assistant District Attorney post for himself. The filmmaker’s commentary on rampant corruption in police precincts all over the country is hard to miss. Trouble brews years later when the teenage sons of Luke and Avery meet in high school.

Every town is a small town. Strangely related people have a way of coming together like magnets. Derek Cianfrance attempts a macro-micro social approach that worked well for projects such as John Sayles’s “City of Hope.” But the dice are so loaded toward building up Ryan Gosling’s character — impetuous and violent as he may be — that the social drama has no where to go when he’s taken out of the equation. Cianfrance could have mitigated some of the narrative disruption had he followed through with Robin’s bank-robber subplot in connecting it to the rest of the movie. As it is, the intriguing character only pops up one more time under unsupported conditions that raise more questions than the scene answers.

The lasting effects of the sins of the fathers are a common theme running through current feature film dramas. In an age when America’s hostile military approach is backfiring with more suicides than battle deaths for soldiers, and gun violence spiraling out of control, it seems likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of these types of dramas. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a film undone by its structure. The AB format is an untraditional story-form that needs considerably more attention than the three screenwriters here gave it.

Rated R. 140 mins. (C+) (Two Stars – out of five/no halves)

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