It doesn't take long for you and your stunt team to make an impression in the crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines. The very first sequence of the film is a single tracking shot that follows a tattooed Ryan Gosling through a small-town carnival, into a tent, onto a motorcycle, and eventually into a metal globe where he spins in loops alongside (and through and between) two other motorcyclists. The way you managed to set up and execute the stunt in an unbroken take is rather extraordinary--though there must have been some computer trickery involved; I can't imagine that the insurance guys would have let Baby Goose surrender himself to the whims of centrifugal force like that.
But even more impressive than that? The structure of the stunt is no accident. What follows in Derek Cianfrance's sprawling, ambitious, flawed (but kind of endearing) follow-up to Blue Valentine is the narrative equivalent of that stunt: the film is composed of three distinct chapters, each with three distinct protagonists, distinct arcs, each with common tensions and consequences that spin in loops alongside, through, and between each other. The whole movie feels like a complex, well-crafted stunt. But, as you surely know, a stunt is only as thrilling as the stakes that hang in the balance (ie. the death it's defying). And that's what The Place Beyond the Pines - a movie ostensibly about the far-reaching ramifications of a single decision - lacks thematically: ramification.
Let me tell you, Brian: it's going to be a disappointment for Gosling fangirls hoping to spend a couple of hours with their favorite monosyllabic doe-eyed mousketeer. Gosling is the star, but only for the first third of the film. The stylish rural crime flick bears striking thematic similarities to Drive (loner with a penchant for high-speed chases commits crimes to support an unavailable woman and her adorable child) abruptly gives way to a thriller about police corruption. Gosling, as protagonist, gives way to Bradley Cooper, and this, too, feels like a stunt. One of those old-school Hollywood stunts, like something from a Bond film, where at the penultimate moment (before the hero is hurled off a cliff, falls of his horse, jumps onto the hood of a moving car, etc.) we cut away from a close-up of the star and see instead, from afar, a stuntman with a passing resemblance enact the dangerous bit of athleticism. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you feel cheated; pulled out, even if for an unconscious half-second, of the immersive mood.
In this case, Cooper suffers from the sudden switcheroo. Whatever you might think of him, Ryan Gosling has a certain magnetism (particular in this type of role: the sexy and troubled man-child) and the entire second act feels ghostly by comparison. Cooper is able to muster only a small fraction of his predecessor's likability (poor guy: he's overshadowed, too, by a pair of spectacular supporting performances from Bruce Greenwood and a Ray Liotta). It's like seeing a stunt driver behind the wheel during a chase scene; you try to play along, try to pretend, but you've lost a little faith in the steadiness of the world the filmmakers have invited us to occupy.
But, so, the sluggish second act eventually gives way to a surprising third: an angsty teen drama that begins with a revelation so rife with possibility that it almost makes up for all that glancing at your watch. But we linger with the kids a little too long (could have used a stunt or two, don't you think: BMX jump over a swimming pool, skateboard chase?) and their precocious bouts of violence feel flimsy after the bank-robberies and chases and sinister drug-dealing cops.
For all the clever plot mechanics (it really is quite impressive how Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder are able to get characters into the same room with each other without stretching motivation and coincidence too far), the themes that drive them feel confused, unconsidered. Is this a movie about fatherhood? About choosing between good and evil? About atoning for your sins? Sure, it's an incredible feat to jump a motorcycle from one ramp to another. But what matters most is what's at stake. What's between the ramps? A pile of mattresses or a pool full of piranhas?
In this case, mattresses full of piranhas.