Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines

In 2010, writer-director Derek Cianfrance broke out with Blue Valentine, the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams character-based study of a failing marriage. In short, it was the rare romantic drama that was decidedly unromantic. Three years later, Cianfrance has switched gears for his sophomore effort with the crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines. Though it feels less than the sum of its excellent parts, the film nonetheless retains the blend of stark realism and complex characters that Cianfrance employed to such great effect in Valentine.

Gosling returns as Cianfrance’s lead, playing Luke Glanton, a tattooed motorcycle rider employed by a traveling carnival. After one performance — in which he and two others expertly whizz around a small spherical cage at high speeds — Glanton checks in on Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress with whom he had a memorable one-night stand the prior summer. Looking for perhaps a repeat of the same, he’s instead stunned to discover Romina raising his infant son. Beset by the hurt caused by growing up with an absent father, Glanton insists on providing for Romina and their son. But when his job at the carnival proves ill-suited for this purpose, he eventually turns to crime, relying on his motorcycle to rob banks in and around Schenectady, N.Y.

After some notable early success, a robbery gone wrong results in Glanton crossing paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop and law school grad with an infant son of his own. The encounter with Glanton results in Cross being declared a public hero. But privately, the thought of his own misconduct haunts him, as does the knowledge that he’s rendered Glanton an absentee father. The film’s second act shifts its focus entirely to Cross, who manages to navigate the corrupt trappings of the Schenectady P.D. all the way up to a run for New York State Attorney General 15 years later. The third act shifts perspectives yet again to the uneasy, volatile friendship that develops between Glanton and Cross’s teenage sons — played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively — and the developments that arise when their fathers’ connection is revealed.

This is an engrossing, involving picture, particularly in the Gosling-centric first act. Playing a rougher, more emotional variant of his character from Drive, Gosling is perfectly cast and commands one’s attention every moment he’s on screen. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Cianfrance — who very admirably manages to keep the tone consistent throughout — the dropoff from which the film suffers after switching perspectives to Bradley Cooper’s character in the second act is palpable. Though he surprised many with his Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper is simply not Gosling’s equal and possesses neither his presence nor gravitas.

BradleyCooper

The film rebounds somewhat in the third act with the up-and-coming Dane DeHaan, who plays virtually the same unsettling, damaged young teen he essayed in last year’s surprise critical hit Chronicle. The Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn — who plays Gosling’s partner in crime — also deserves mention in a supporting role, stealing nearly every scene he’s in.

There’s no shortage of films that feature parallel and intersecting characters and plot lines. What makes Pines interesting is the way in which Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder have divided the movie so finitely, breaking the movie into three distinct, linear parts. Unfortunately, the key development in the film’s third act is so coincidental it strains credibility, undermining the unquestionable success the writers have in fleshing out their characters. It’s this failing — and Cooper’s performance — that likely points to why this is being released in March and not October.

In spite of its shortcomings, The Place Beyond the Pines is more than worth checking out for fans of character-driven, slow-burn thrillers. It may not be quite the worthy, masterful successor to Blue Valentine some were hoping for, but it’s hardly a misstep either and can comfortably stand on its own.