The Place Beyond the Pines

* * 1/2

The Place Beyond the Pines, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to 2010’s Blue Valentine, is about the sins of fathers being visited on sons, fate and a particular kind of grittiness in the working class milieu of Schenectady, New York, depicted here as a dead end of lower income homes, rampant crime, corrupt cops and kids without futures. Like Blue Valentine, which charted the dissolution of love between young, working class marrieds played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the movie takes us into a suffocating darkness. But unlike that picture, the humanity fails to generate heat.

In a theme-heavy picture staged as a three-segment triptych of male posturing and egos and guilt, The Place Beyond the Pines begins with Ryan Gosling’s “Handsome” Luke, a tattooed carnival motorcycle rider reconnecting with former fling Romina (Eva Mendes) and learning that his one-year-old son is being cared for by Romina and her new boyfriend (Mahershala Ali).

This discovery sets off a chain of events as Luke vies for Romina’s love and the chance to right the wrong course his own father took with him. Trouble is, his ability to provide is limited. Until he meets Robin (superb Ben Mendelsohn), a two-bit criminal who teaches him to rob banks, and the two men soon make a killing. Luke does the hold-ups, speeding away on his cycle, and Robin does the getaway driving. Works like a charm, until it doesn’t. Gosling, likable as always, delivers an interesting character, but we are never quite sure if we should feel sympathy or regard him as a thug.

Enter beat cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose fateful confrontation with Luke changes both of their lives. It’s difficult to talk about the picture because the plot contains surprises, but like Denzel Washington’s character in Flight, who saved an aircraft of passengers, Avery finds himself under intense scrutiny after the incident, and a cabal of corruption and extortion surfaces, led by a dirty cop played, as only he can do, by the great Ray Liotta.

Meanwhile, wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne, in an underwritten role), knows something is afoot, but a woman in her place is unable to speak up.  Avery finds himself in a dangerous spot and unable to extricate himself.

Flash forward 15 years and the men’s sons, well played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), play out a complex relationship at the local high school without knowing each other’s identities, the events of the past bubbling just out of reach. Suffice to say secrets are revealed and the picture becomes one of legacies between generations, consequences of actions in the past reverberating in the present.

The Place Beyond the Pines is certainly well made, featuring gorgeous, widescreen cinematography by Sean Bobbit that effectively captures a grimy sense of dead-end romanticism during Luke and Romina’s late night couplings, and a lovely score from Faith No More’s former front man Mike Patton. The picture looks and sounds terrific.

But it’s a sum of its parts thing, mainly Gosling, Cooper and company, who are all committed to their roles. But the movie eventually reveals itself to be an exercise in theme—men who are cornered by circumstances and have to fight their way out, and do right by their women and kids—and less about humanizing its people. As a result, it’s a rung or two below Blue Valentine, an intensely raw drama.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a respectable picture, if not an engaging one.

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