"The Place Beyond the Pines" announces its great ambition with its first scene. It consists of a single, unbroken shot that follows carnival motorcycle trick rider Luke (Ryan Gosling) from his trailer, through the midway, onto his motorcycle and into a wire "globe-of-death" cage where he and other riders race around the confined quarters and defy gravity.
Beautifully staged by director Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine") and expertly shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the scene evokes the no-cut, kitchen-to-club scene in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas." It also immediately increases viewer expectations. It asks that "Pines" live up not only to the promise of "Valentine" Cianfrance's heart-rending 2010 exploration of marital collapse (also starring Gosling) but that the rest of this film live up to its first minutes.
Cianfrance succeeds on both counts. Accomplished, mesmerizing and as sprawling as "Valentine" was uncomfortably intimate, "Pines" offers fine performances by Gosling and Bradley Cooper as it crosses generations and shifts narrative perspectives while seeking truths about fathers, sons and destinies.
Cianfrance shot "Pines" entirely in Schenectady, N.Y., using real diners and modest homes as locations. The setting keeps "Pines" rooted in reality as the story adds characters and scope. "Place Beyond the Pines" demonstrates that a film need not be shot on the sands of Arabia to be epic.
Cooper, who plays a police officer, gets as much or more screen time than Gosling, but Gosling's character sets the story in motion. "Pines" essentially rests on Gosling's capable shoulders, which for this film are covered in tattoos.
Gosling's soul-baring relationship to the camera has, throughout his career, drawn comparisons to 1950s "method" actors such as James Dean. But unlike Dean, whose charisma often isolated him from others in a scene, Gosling feeds off interaction. On screen, Dean was all about yearning to connect to others. Gosling's loner characters, including his sweet, needy husband in "Valentine" and the wrongheaded Luke in "Pines," bond with others. The drama emerges from the sometimes disastrous results of those connections.
Luke, making his annual stop in Schenectady with the carnival, discovers he has fathered a baby son with his ex-flame, Romina (Eva Mendes). A diner waitress, Romina has found a steadier fellow (Mahersala Ali) in Luke's absence, but she cannot resist the motorcycle rider, especially after Luke decides to leave the tour and stay in Schenectady.
Luke's desire to be a better father than his own father drives the larger events of "Place Beyond the Pines," and the character cranks the throttle while running over the distinction between hero and villain.
Gosling gives Luke a stubborn single-mindedness that ignores all barriers. A man who rides a motorcycle in a cage for a living sees his baby's mother's boyfriend as as a small impediment. It will not deter him from the fantasy of building a life with Romina and the boy.
Luke's many tattoos include an under-eye dagger design that resembles a cross. Or perhaps it just looks like a cross because crosses are everywhere in "Pines" houses, churches, characters' names. But they allude less to a specific Bible story than to this film falling under the "of biblical proportions" umbrella.
The tattoo's crudeness also brings to mind a prison stint, and Luke's behavior suggests a misapprehension about the true meanings of pride and honor. Gosling's sometimes-fierce, sometimes-befuddled expressions tell audiences that Luke wants to be "good" but does not grasp the nuances of goodness, such as compassion, empathy and impulse control.
Seeking a way to support his son, Luke starts robbing banks, turning his riding skills into getaway skills. In his mind, providing for his family justifies his crimes. His misdeeds lead to exciting chase scenes through the leafy streets of Schenectady, but threaten his dream of a life with Romina. His actions also expose Romina, Luke's son and Luke's friendly garage-owner boss (the wonderful Ben Mendelsohn) to larger dangers.
Mendes appears visibly torn in scenes with Gosling, showing how Romina is caught between her love for Luke and her inability to trust him. But the script does not give Mendes much opportunity to stretch beyond that.
Romina should be the linchpin as "Pines" broadens to incorporate Luke's and Romina's stories with that of police officer Avery Cross (Cooper). Instead, she's a sketchily drawn martyr in a male-centric story.
That's not a heavy criticism. A film as modestly budgeted yet ambitious as "Pines" cannot get everything right. Cianfrance almost compensates for Romina by showcasing two movie stars Gosling and Cooper in one film while each is at the top of his career.
"Pines" (made before "Silver Linings Playbook," which earned Cooper an Oscar nomination, was released) gives Cooper a role that, like Gosling's, amounts to a lead. The movie shifts to Avery's perspective after a chase leads to a run-in between the bank robber and the police officer. Their characters are mirrors Luke is a destructive force trying to be a good guy and Avery is a good guy vulnerable to destructive forces.
Cooper wears a police officer's crew cut and an unassuming expression in early scenes, but he does not play uncomplicated men (smarmy, yes, but not uncomplicated). His character became a beat cop partly to escape the shadow of his well-connected judge father. But he inherited the old man's sense of entitlement despite himself. Cooper embodies the conflict inherent to wanting to do the right thing while knowing there's an easier way out.
"Place Beyond the Pines" will not lift spirits. ("Blue Valentine" viewers know Cianfrance is no purveyor of light). Yet there are hints of hope attached to the film's view that change is possible if people can just get out of their own way.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
Three 1/2 stars
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Mahersala Ali, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Rated R (language, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, a sexual reference)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.