“The Place Beyond the Pines” tells three overlapping stories that center on the legacies — voluntary or not — fathers leave their sons, and the split-second decisions that can shape them. The title is the English translation of the Mohawk word for the film’s setting, Schenectady. It’s a fitting romanticizing of reality for the film’s characters, who all hope for something better than what they have.
As bottle-blond, tat-splattered motorcycle stunt rider Luke, Ryan Gosling has never been better. When he runs into former one-night stand Romina (his real-life love, Eva Mendes) and finds out he’s a babydaddy, the ramblin’ man goes gooey at the prospect of having an insta-family. Never mind Romina’s live-in boyfriend. Determined to support his toddler son, Luke teams with a mechanic (the always-superb Ben Mendelsohn, last seen as the junkie in “Killing Them Softly”) to rob banks, and his single-take getaway chase scene — for which Gosling reportedly trained six hours a day for two months — is a nail-biter.
Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance, whose decaying-marriage tear-jerker “Blue Valentine” also starred Gosling, has built a reputation as idealistic and uncompromising, brilliant at creating mood amid an airtight structure. But where that film jumped back and forth in time, this one is linear — and that’s about the only storytelling convention Cianfrance follows as he plays with narrative arc and alternates between bursts of high-octane action and the gritty, foreboding yet dreamy feel of “21 Grams.”
The second story, emerging before the first is quite over, features Bradley Cooper as wounded-hero cop, Avery. Facing corruption among his cohorts (including Ray Liotta). Avery has some serious ethical elasticity of his own. Cooper builds on his “Silver Linings Playbook” serious-actor cred, with shifty, nervous eyes conveying the self-doubt and fear he can’t express verbally. Avery’s father (Harris Yulin), a judge who can’t completely hide his disappointment in his son’s blue-collar career path, adds another generational element to the theme.
Avery and his wife (Rose Byrne) also have a young boy. Jumping ahead, the third and weakest story in the film intertwines the fates of the sons of the cop and the criminal when they reach their teens. Unfortunately, the tail end of the triptych can’t sustain the dramatic tension that came before it without toppling an already precarious believability.
Still, with so much to chew on, it doesn’t feel like that matters too much. With more than 50 speaking roles, the film easily could have sprawled out of control into a predictable epic. But “The Place Beyond the Pines” holds enough intimacy — and surprise — to satisfy.