What does it mean to say a movie is an “epic”? An epic uses its characters and plot to illuminate a place, an era, an entire society. We are constantly being reminded, through camera work and art direction, that what we’re watching is something larger and more socially significant than its plot. The action is always placed within a wider context, historically and geographically, and the characters we’re watching move through the story as though they are actors on a grand stage.
The best analogy is to the omniscient narrative voice of Charles Dickens, who both anticipated and helped create the techniques of cinematic storytelling decades before the first motion picture was made. Dickens tells his tales from, simultaneously, 30,000 feet above and inches away from his characters; he is not only talking about them but about the society that houses them—the natural world in which they live, and the moral universe in which they operate.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a Dickensian epic that doesn’t look like a Dickensian epic—and, alas, looks do matter. The director and cowriter Derek Cianfrance has made a movie that spans two decades, features three independent storylines, and involves bank robbery, police corruption, political ambition, fathers and sons, industrial decline, generational conflict, and interracial marriage. It has the kind of scope one finds in the works of the great classical Italian director Luchino Visconti, whose sweeping films Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard combine historical grandeur with familial drama (and were a signal influence on Francis Ford Coppola when he came to make his towering epic, The Godfather).
Cianfrance clearly wanted to make a masterpiece about life in postindustrial America, with the added heft of the biblical admonition that sins of the fathers are passed on to the sons. But he made the unwise decision to film The Place Beyond the Pines as though it were a tiny little slip of a movie. It has all the patented stylistic effects: There’s the jiggly camera that pushes in on its characters and mostly stays mushed up against them. There’s the low lighting that sets everything in a kind of rainy gloom. There’s the script that sounds half-improvised, with weird, actorly pauses that are intended to reflect the reality of the way we speak but actually only reflect the discomfort of a performer who doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say next. All of this has the effect of shrinking the movie’s narrative canvas, not broadening it, as its story and scope demand.
Luke (Ryan Gosling), who makes his living working for a traveling carnival, returns with it to a depressed city in upstate New York to discover that on his last trip he had impregnated a waitress (Eva Mendes) who has given birth to his son. Luke decides to stay around to be a father, but he has no skills, and takes to robbery. Eventually he ends up in a confrontation with a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper), who becomes a hero as a result. Fifteen years later, the cop’s son and Luke’s son end up in the same high school, with discomfiting results.
Cianfrance made his reputation two and a half years ago with the powerful and cringe-inducing Blue Valentine; its indie style was appropriate to its time-fragmented account of a disastrous marriage. The Place Beyond the Pines is a complex tale with several main characters who intersect in glancing ways. There is nothing intimate about it, and yet Cianfrance filmed it in exactly the same manner as Blue Valentine. Is that because he was limited by a modest budget, and had to keep the camera close in because he could not afford the expense of making sure the period details (part of the movie is set in the mid-1990s) were accurate? Perhaps.
But even so, there’s something undercooked about The Place Beyond the Pines that is exacerbated by its failure as an epic. Visconti took his time in his movies, as Coppola did in The Godfather, in part because he took such care establishing the geography and history. These are stately films, made with authority, that take you by the hand and give you a tour of the grounds. Cianfrance takes it slow as well—The Place Beyond the Pines runs a little short of two and a half hours—but the movie isn’t at all stately. Mostly, Cianfrance uses his extra time to drag out individual scenes. I’m sure this made Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, its two leading players, very happy. Actors love to have the camera dwell on their silences and brooding stares and tears that well in the eye but do not fall down the cheek. But it’s not good when a movie stops dead in its tracks, and this one does several times.