Granted, Pines was never going to work completely as a feature film. The movie contains three distinct, nearly independent narratives, each of which could have made for a fine, 80-minute drama. Circus performer Luke (Ryan Gosling) begins the film, and though the story rushes his emotional development, his eventual fate makes for a tidy little tragedy. A Schenectady cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper) comes next, his family troubles and campaign against police corruption providing a well-executed, if derivative, vignette. Finally, we jump ahead 15 years to see the next generation scheming, smoking, and selling drugs, which blossoms into a crafty morality tale about loyalty and lineage. Before long, you'll wonder whether you just flipped to TBS on a particularly good Sunday afternoon run of made-for-TV dramas.
To Cianfrance's credit, he avoids the trendy narrative devices plaguing many modern movies (see: the laughable psych ward segments bookending Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby). Instead, he tells his three stories in strict order, one after the other, which is probably why Pines still works more than it doesn't. With the sheer number of narrative strands, an artsy, meandering hopscotch through time and setting would have pushed the film from hectic to incomprehensible.
Happily, the performances prove more successful than the pacing. Gosling's Luke (pitiful, vulnerable) achieves a rare balance of irresponsibility and charm, making us root for him despite our better judgement. After a handful of suave performances (The Notebook; Drive; Crazy, Stupid, Love; The Ides of March) Gosling proves he can play the drug-rattled washout, and emphatically so. Meanwhile, Cooper's Avery adds another worthy bullet to his Serious Role Résumé, further distancing himself from his "guy from The Hangover" byline. (To be picky, Cooper adds few memorable, stylistic wrinkles to this role—particularly compared to his quirky, tormented Pat in Silver Linings Playbook. Here, he probably plays the workaholic cop a little too straight.) Quietly, Eva Mendes delivers an admirably nuanced performance as Romina, the mother caught between her child's loser father and tie-wearing stepfather. Romina's no-nonsense resolve breaks only twice, but when it does, the film's reckless pace seems to slow, almost mercifully, to a halt.
It's in these quiet moments that you'll realize just how good Pines could have been, but fails to be. Sometimes a little prolonged silence, or the soft sobbing of a character once thought invincible, turns out to be the most cinematically riveting, even in a film full of bank robberies and motorcycle chases. Cianfrance's rare highs only serve to expose the dozen other moments where he should have lingered, forcing audiences to confront what they wouldn't like, if only for a minute longer. With three separate narratives and two generations of characters to develop, it seems he knew where he needed to get, but not how long it would take him to get there. In the end, The Place Beyond the Pines does very little wrong. It simply runs out of time.