American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
American filmmaker Derek Cianfrance takes on too much at all at once in "The Place Beyond the Pines," an over-stuffed, hyper-pulpy, and mostly trite trifurcated drama about family, crime, and moral ambiguity. Cianfrance's film, his follow-up to the similarly lop-sided, but otherwise superior "Blue Valentine," follows four men: a daredevil motorcyclist who becomes a bank robber, a mealy-mouthed smalltown cop who's not the hero his peers think he is, and their respective sons.
Aesthetically, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is an unwieldy mix of psychological realism and visual impressionism, so Cianfrance's characters' dialogue is deliberately coarse while his film's mise-en-scène is distractingly mannered. Ostentatiously composed compositions, manic narrative pacing, and a thunderous Sturm-und-Drang score all strain to make a grand tragedy out of four salt-of-the-earth types' contrived stories.
The worst of these offenses is Cianfrance's over-mannered direction, which slavishly tries to replicate his characters' emotional confusion in visual terms. In one scene, he shows a married couple talking to each other in bed, and takes great pains to plop viewers into the middle of their conversation, so it feels semi-realistic. But Cianfrance also takes great pains to highlight the moon's reflection on both man and wife's up-turned lips as they talk to each other.
That kind of purposeless style-over-substance embellishment is frustrating, but Cianfrance does his talented cast an even greater disservice when he doesn't even show us people's faces as they react to crucial dramatic questions. In one memorably botched exchange, a boy asks his father's friend what his dad was like, and the friend responds with trepidation somewhere off-screen. Both the broad and narrow strokes that Cianfrance and his two co-writers used to sketch out their epic crime narrative are indistinct.