** (out of four)
First, let’s acknowledge something nice: Bradley Cooper is very good in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” even better than the Oscar-nominated actor was in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Unfortunately, director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”) doesn’t fully consider the details and challenges of any character in the story—even Avery (Cooper), an inexperienced cop who doesn’t appear until about an hour into the movie. First, “Pines” follows Luke (Ryan Gosling, looking lost), a stunt motorcycle rider who quits his carnival job after learning that a brief fling with Romina (Eva Mendes, Gosling’s real-life squeeze) yielded him an infant son. Luke needs money to have any shot of convincing Romina he deserves a bigger place in her and her son’s life than Romina’s new guy (Mahershala Ali), so it’s no surprise that Luke eventually takes his auto shop boss Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) up on his idea about robbing banks.
When Luke wants to rob two banks in one day and Robin has had enough of the loose cannon, he tells him, “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.” “Crash Like Thunder” would have been a more fitting title to a film seeking big drama but refusing to let people act in unexpected ways.
When Cooper’s character gets involved, “Pines” becomes disappointingly melodramatic and contrived. The guilt and conflicted feelings that wash over him far outshine the more broadly conceived, tattooed-and-Metallica T-shirt-wearing bad boy Gosling plays. (Emory Cohen and rising star Dane DeHaan play Avery’s and Luke’s teenage sons, respectively, in a subplot that feels annoyingly inevitable.)
It can be interesting to consider that so-called “bad guys” aren’t always bad guys—and I don’t mean that in the way that “Wreck-It Ralph” meant it—but “Pines” attempts to depict a vicious circle of anguish that’s as profound as a stacked deck eventually tipping over.
Like the far more perceptive “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” leaves you with a sense that the world is terrible and people have little chance to bridge the gaps between them. It doesn’t take a cheap story of corruption and a faux-Shakespearean tragedy to tackle hopelessness, though. Just a closer look at the players involved, kicking water until their chin rises clear above the surface.
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