Film Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

The opening chapter with a compelling Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle-daredevil bank robber is the strongest element of this three-part drama about fathers, sons and fate.

The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, his acclaimed drama of a romance gone sour, is nothing if not ambitious. It’s a triptych of interrelated stories spanning 15 years, with a near-biblical theme of sins of fathers impacting the next generation. Trouble is, the movie is front-loaded: The first of the three sections is so compelling and dynamic, everything that comes after feels pallid in comparison.

The star of that first chapter is Ryan Gosling, whose electric performance in Blue Valentine was near the top of the list of 2010 Oscar snubs. The movie opens on the same buff, bare torso he displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love, this time covered in funky tattoos. Gosling is Luke, a carnival motorcycle cage rider who learns that the hook-up he enjoyed on his last visit to Schenectady, New York, has produced a child. Luke’s onetime lover Romina (Eva Mendes) is now living with another man, but the stunt rider insists on being a part of her new life as a mother. He quits his carnival gig and takes a job in town as a car mechanic with a scuzzy garage proprietor, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Desperate to provide for his infant son, Luke doesn’t put up much resistance to Robin’s plan to stage a series of bank robberies taking advantage of Luke’s daredevil motorcycle getaway skills.

No one in movies today blends toughness and vulnerability better than the magnetic Gosling, and his earnest intensity keeps us interested in the fate of his notorious “Moto Bandit.” The robbery and high-speed pursuit scenes have a visceral energy, with Gosling impressively doing his own stunt work in one continuous shot that begins at a bank and has him narrowly dodging traffic as he races from the crime scene.

Then, Luke has a momentous encounter with rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and the film hands the baton over to Avery and his story. Cross is the son of a powerful judge, who dropped out of law school and decided to pursue a career in police work. When he discovers that his department is rife with corruption, he becomes a whistleblower. But he himself harbors a guilty secret stemming from his fateful meeting with the Moto Bandit.

In the third section, the film jumps ahead 15 years. Avery is now a rising politician, whose neglected teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen) isn’t exactly a model student. The story comes full circle with the revelation that AJ’s school friend Jason (Dane DeHaan) is the son that motivated Luke’s life of crime all those years ago.

Cianfrance, who shares screenwriting credit with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, has devised an intricate structure on which to hang his themes. But after the fast-paced crime spree and charismatic turn by Gosling in the first act, the sudden handoff to the more mundane internal-affairs matters of act two and the kid-centered revelations of act three test the viewer’s patience. Cianfrance probably did need the 140 minutes he takes to unfurl this sprawling morality tale, but the film never regains the bracing momentum of its strong first chapter.

Cooper continues to show his capabilities as a dramatic actor, though his work here is greatly overshadowed by the regrettably hasty exit of Gosling, who many feel was robbed of People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” crown by his Pines co-star. Of the supporting players, Eva Mendes brings not only sultry beauty but soul to her performance as the resilient Romina, and Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) makes the scheming Robin curiously likeable.

The title The Place Beyond the Pines refers to an ominous site of reckoning that may remind some of a similar woodsy location in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. Cianfrance’s Place is worth a visit, but patience and lowered expectations are advised.