“The Place Beyond the Pines,” Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious, unwieldy multi-generational morality tale, features Ryan Gosling in the kind of tattooed lover-boy role that might have been perfect for Robert Mitchum.
Playing the same kind of taciturn, smoking-hot loner that he embodied as the getaway man in “Drive,” here Gosling plays a drifter named Luke, who makes his living on the road as a motorcycle stunt rider. The movie begins with Cianfrance’s stealthily observant camera following Luke from behind as he psychs himself up for another bout in the spherical cage where he drives his bike in accelerating centrifugal loop-de-loops while the surrounding crowd cheers.
For a minute there, it looks like “The Place Beyond the Pines” will be a deeply psychological character study in the tradition of “The Wrestler” or “The Fighter.” And with his alert sense of tone and atmosphere, Cianfrance — who directed Gosling in the searing relationship drama “Blue Valentine” — clearly has the chops to deliver the kind of emotional deep-dive those movies offered.
But here he goes for something more sprawling and self-consciously dramatic: a meditation on fate, destiny and sins of the fathers delivered as a three-act triptych that suffers from diminishing returns with each successive installment. But Cianfrance is too skilled a scenarist to make “The Place Beyond the Pines” anything less than compelling. Even when it devolves into schematic structural conceits and overwrought contrivance, it exerts an undeniable aesthetic and psychic pull.
During the film’s first act, much of that force comes by way of Gosling, who, even with weirdly bleach-blond hair, commands attention with every flick of his eyelashes. Luke has just performed at a fair in Schenectady, N.Y., when he’s paid a visit by Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he met there a year earlier. Luke decides to hang around, fetching up at a roadside mechanic’s shop run by a motorcycle enthusiast named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn).
Fittingly enough for a movie about the rituals of men acting like men (which often looks like boys doing incredibly stupid stuff), the two meet at a wordless dirt-biking contest in the woods, a sequence Cianfrance films with both bucolic lyricism and tense machismo. Even though Luke’s subsequent actions are motivated by his devotion to Romina, the real romance in “The Place Beyond the Pines” is between Luke and Robin: Cianfrance shoots them in the high key light of lovers, their blue eyes flashing toward each other amid the garage’s sooty grime.
Luke’s chapter of “The Place Beyond the Pines” features the film’s best scenes, including at least two impressive chases through the Schenectady streets and a cemetery. Soon thereafter Luke crosses paths with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a city police officer who, in many ways, resembles Luke’s own shadow self. Laboring under the high expectations of a demanding father and within a corrupt police force, Avery should present even more material for a good juicy narrative about moral uncertainty.
But it’s during this chapter that “The Place Beyond the Pines” begins to wobble, as characters act in increasingly improbable ways. The coincidences finally collide in a fatal pile-up in the third act, which features the terrific Dane DeHaan and a woefully miscast Emory Cohen, who mumbles his way unconvincingly through his character’s wannabe-gangsta stylings.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” is finally too labored, too pat to be believable. But, as he did with the more tightly focused and pungent “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance proves to be exceptionally skillful at coaxing galvanizing performances from his actors, and at creating a world that seems both universal and hermetically self-contained. As the sum of some admittedly imperfect parts, “The Place Beyond the Pines” still manages to cast its own haunting, sorrowful spell.
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference. 140 minutes.