The Place Beyond the Pines: Three-Part Disharmony

A soulful Ryan Gosling binds together this flawed but ultimately moving triptych about fathers and sons

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Atsushi Nishijima/Focus Features

The movie-star business is such that I’d been thinking of The Place Beyond the Pines as Ryan Gosling’s movie, one in which he reteams with his Blue Valentine director, Derek Cianfrance. I was wrong. Though Gosling, appearing in only the first third of the film, sparks the story into motion, The Place Beyond the Pines can’t be said to be anyone’s movie but Cianfrance’s. Structured as a triptych, the movie is novelistic, earnest and somewhat exhausting an ambitious effort that tries to be many things. And it is definitely something: a sprawling, engaging study in fathers, sons and sins.

Gosling is Luke, who has a job in a traveling carnival riding a motorcycle in a round metal cage with two other cyclists. The movie opens with Luke entering a shabby tent, mounting the bike and climbing into his peculiar, torture-chamber-like workspace — which may be Cianfrance’s statement that we’re all captive, going round and round, on a carousel of time. When Luke discovers that Romina, the waitress he slept with during last year’s swing through upstate New York, has borne him a child named Jason, he climbs off that carousel and attempts to be a father. “My father wasn’t around, and look what happened to me,” he tells Romina (played by a winningly vulnerable Eva Mendes).

(MORE: Wait, Ryan Gosling Is Doing What?)

At first, this means loitering around the apartment she shares with the baby, her mother and Kofi (Mahershala Ali of Treme), whom Romina calls her “man.” Kofi has provided her with a home and accepted the child as his own — he’s the true prince of this drama. While Kofi is providing for Jason, Luke meets up with a mechanic named Robin (the fantastic Ben Mendelsohn from Killing Them Softly), who quickly develops a boy-crush on Luke. After helping him with a minimum-wage job and a free room, Robin hatches a bad idea involving them becoming bank robbers. “Not since Hall and Oates has there been such a team,” Luke says to Robin in the adrenaline rush that follows their first heist, before they dissolve into giggles and start slapping at each other like teenagers. I’d watch an entire television series about these guys (or even one just featuring Robin hanging around in his little rural garage). They’re dopes, but heartbreakingly so.

There’s an abrupt shift in perspective to that of a rookie cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper, proving Silver Linings Playbook was not a fluke). Suddenly leaving Luke’s story is a robbery of sorts; I wasn’t done with him. There’s little to admire in Avery, who is aggressive in matters pertaining to career and cowardly in almost everything else. He’s got a law degree but is dabbling in blue collar work, which seems like a pose. The commonality is that he’s as nervous and uncertain about doing the right thing as Luke is about doing the wrong thing. And just like Luke, Avery has an infant son, AJ, although he is far less interested in his boy. Visually, Cianfrance and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Shame) do some of the same irritating camera work (not just wobbling, but a wavering multiple-exposure effect that hurts the eyes) in the first two parts of the triptych, but the texture of the film changes. So many supporting characters fill the story — a corrupt cop (Ray Liotta), a woman who is fearful that she has married an entire police department (Rose Byrne), a slightly slimy district attorney (Bruce Greenwood), Avery’s father, a weary former state supreme court justice (Harris Yulin) — that at times it seems like a seedy, small-town Goodfellas.

In Blue Valentine, Cianfrance deliberately fractured the temporal narrative to tease out the telling moments in a doomed relationship; his primary storytelling goal seemed to be seeking and revealing intimacies. The Place Beyond the Pines is more strictly linear and less about intimacies than outcomes. What sins of a father will be visited upon a son? Are they avoidable? Yet I was taken aback when Cianfrance launched into a third act, “15 Years Later,” involving the children of the two main characters. It’s an unnecessary appendage; we already have a good idea of the fates that await Jason (played as a teen by Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen from Smash).

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Blue Valentine)

This last chapter lacks the jagged energy of the previous two — and some might even fault Cianfrance for indulgently allowing his movie to run 140 minutes. At first I wasn’t convinced I needed to sit through it, just as I wasn’t convinced by the dusting of gray in Mendes’ hair. And yet I was ultimately moved by this last act. That’s a credit to the director for steering his film onward when most everyone else would have called it a day. And maybe also a credit to Gosling, who makes such a strong impression in his short time onscreen that in a sense the rest of the movie, particularly the last act, becomes a testimonial to his character.