It’s rare these days to be able to walk into the screening of a new movie knowing little except the most basic information. Settling in for the premiere of The Place Beyond the Pines, all I knew was that the picture reunites director Derek Cianfrance and his Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling. I knew it also stars Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes (and I’m a big fan of all three). I knew the production was shot entirely in upstate New York, because a friend in the area told me she was tickled to catch a glimpse of Cooper during the shoot. Plot outline, genre, even running time? I sat happily ignorant as the theater lights went down.
Then came trouble. Five minutes in, my internal bullpoop detector began setting off a faint alarm. A very long two hours and twenty minutes later — after the fate and legacy of Gosling’s motorcycle stunt-rider-turned-bank-robber linked up fully with the fate and legacy of Cooper’s conflicted cop who ends the robbery spree — the clang of hooey! deafened me with its reverb. I’m just one opinionator; my colleague Dave Karger has already shuffled the performances into his deck of Oscar contenders, and critical praise is arriving from other quarters. But until you click in search of a happier review, I’m going to analyze a few elements of pretention in what looks and sounds to me for all the world exactly like a Sundance movie on Toronto steroids.
–First sign of trouble: tattoos. Art directors and a certain breed of cool younger actors love them, but, seriously guys, they don’t convey toughness; they convey lazy character development and/or actorly affectation. Playing a dead-end drifter named Luke, Gosling sports a dagger-and-tear design under his left eye, spidery writing on his neck, and stupid-ass designs up and down his arms and torso. He also favors bleached-platinum hair, a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips as he mumbles in a pained-life monotone, a wardrobe of (expertly) distressed tee shirts worn inside out, and a repertory of long, wordless, opaquely placid stares that mask a capacity for psychopathic violence. For those who saw Gosling’s soulful-loner performance in Drive, this riff is a rerun. All decked out in art-directed grunge, Gosling’s Luke remains an arbitrary cypher.
–Second sign of trouble: Luke’s temporary residence is a trailer in the woods. This signifier of low social strata is particularly attractive to indie filmmakers who have never lived in trailers in the woods, and don’t understand that such set-decorated habitats and hideaways have little to do with what life is really like for young dead-enders in these United States.
–Third sign of trouble: Yet another night-shift diner waitress job with which the struggling single mother (Mendes) earns meager money to feed her year-old son. Is there no other job in the movie universe for attractive struggling single mothers? (Wasn’t that Carey Mulligan’s gig in Drive?)
–Fourth sign of trouble: Lousy, only-in-the-movies police work. Let’s just say, spoiler free, that unlike Cooper’s cop, a police officer on duty in a squad car would never be traveling without a partner as he chases an obviously dangerous suspect.
–Fifth sign of trouble: Ray Liotta as a cop who’s both rotten and threatening. Really? In this day and age? Yet again?
I could go on, clucking at various directorial moves that draw attention to the direction rather than the material — the opening tracking shot, pretty and meaningless, is one place to start. But I’ll finish up with a ding of the uh-oh bell for the distractions offered by a portentous-sounding score, with its steady bass rumble of subliminal existential unease. At least I think that’s what the rumble is supposed to suggest. A pumped-up exercise in genre and a playground for big acting gestures rather than a a story told with conviction about characters worth caring about, The Place Beyond the Pines represents the kind of inauthentic indie-style American movie that has established itself as “cool” and manly-intimate today.