The opening minutes serve as a nifty precursor for the action, both physical and psychological, to follow. Stunt motorcycle driver Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling, Gangster Squad) emerges from a darkened trailer and into a traveling carnival. As the camera trails him over his shoulder, Luke gets on his cycle, enters the caged globe of death and zooms around in circles with two other cyclists. The scene deftly mimics the film’s subsequent rhythm: slow simmers and resulting eruptions of violence.
Few actors working today capture that tone better than Gosling. His tight-lipped, heavily tattooed drifter — a character reminiscent of his getaway driver in 2011’s Drive — forgoes his wanderlust when he learns that he has fathered a baby boy. He quits in hopes of staying in town to take care of the child, vowing not to repeat the sins of his own negligent father.
But dad life doesn’t come easily for the short-fused Luke. For one, the baby’s mother (Eva Mendes, The Other Guys), already has a decidedly more stable boyfriend (Mahershala Ali, Netflix’s House of Cards). And Luke has the misfortune of meeting up with an auto mechanic and occasional bank robber (Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly) who’s looking for a partner in crime.
The less you know about the plot, the better. Suffice it to say that Luke’s journey becomes entwined with that of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook), a rookie cop in Schenectady, N.Y., nursing his own daddy issues. The son of a well-respected judge, Avery must maneuver between his moral convictions and the corruption of a police force embodied by the dependably menacing Ray Liotta (Killing Them Softly).
Cianfrance shrewdly ratchets up the stakes and suspense while anchoring his triptych in issues of fatherhood. Things sag mightily, however, with a close-to-absurd final reel in which a pair of troubled teen boys takes center stage. Cianfrance and his co-screenwriters (Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) have Shakespearean aspirations here — and good for them — but they are hobbled by a piling on of coincidences and a poorly calibrated performance by Emory Cohen (TV’s Smash) as Avery’s son, a wannabe white rapper and Sopranos character.
Still, the bulk of Place Beyond the Pines is masterful enough to forgive even this misdirection. It’s just the difference between a great film and a very, very good one. —Phil Bacharach