The Place Beyond the Pines

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is a brooding drama of epic scope set in the New York town of Schenectady, whose name comes from a Mohawk word loosely translated as “the place beyond the pines.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) So that explains the title. But there’s another meaning hinted at in the film itself, as more than one character on more than one occasion heads into the woods with the intention of going past where he’s gone before, not just geographically but morally. Schenectady is the literal “place beyond the pines,” but it’s also a symbol of the cycles and ruts we get trapped in and strive to move beyond.

Directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”), the film ultimately has a sprawling scale that spans two generations of two families. It could have been a miniseries — perhaps should have been, to give the complex relationships more room to develop. But there’s no indication of that in its intimate beginnings, where the focus is on one person: Luke (Ryan Gosling), a tattooed, perpetually dirty stunt motorcyclist in a traveling carnival, one of those guys who ride in gravity-defying circles inside a spherical cage. Upon learning that a fling with a local girl, Romina (Eva Mendes), has produced a child, he resolves to stay in town and be part of his son’s life. Romina has mixed feelings about this; her boyfriend, a stable provider named Kofi (Mahershala Ali), is decidedly not pleased.

Luke’s intentions are noble, but he barely has money to support himself, let alone contribute to the baby’s upbringing. A seedy mechanic friend of his, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), suggests a simple bank robbery — not a lavish heist, but an old-fashioned stick-up by a masked bandit, with Robin as getaway man. You don’t even need a real gun. Luke, embracing the idea, is disconcertingly cavalier about it (“Not since Hall & Oates has there been such a team!” he jokes), and we come to see that his cool, meek demeanor — a Gosling specialty — has an unpredictable, erratic side to it (another Gosling specialty).

At a point much later in the movie than major characters are usually introduced, Luke encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a heroically injured rookie cop whose career ambitions, like Luke’s, are partly driven by a desire to take care of his family. But in addition to his worried wife (Rose Byrne), Avery feels pressure from his retired judge father (Harris Yulin), who’s pushing him down a difficult path, and from seasoned-but-shady colleagues like Deluca (a typically imposing Ray Liotta), who expect him to toe the line with regard to their extralegal activities. This pattern of fathers and sons trying to please each other while also escaping one another’s influence is repeated again when we meet A.J. (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan), teenagers with opposite upbringings but a shared disconnect with their fathers.

Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder take advantage of the atypical narrative structure by using it to bring out parallels in the three stories. As the sins of the fathers are visited on the heads of the sons, we see history repeat itself, often in ways that the characters themselves don’t realize. The point is that our actions, even righteous ones, have consequences we can’t predict or control, and that who we are is a matter of both nature and nurture.

Gosling, who also starred in Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” and looks like his younger, handsomer brother, has proven a useful avatar for the director’s examination of well-intentioned but messed-up men. Gosling’s puppy-dog cuteness, beaming out from under the grime of the character’s ratty T-shirts and acid-wash jeans, can’t help but make him sympathetic to the end. Cooper does respectable work as the conflicted cop, and the young men cast as teenagers do what they can with somewhat limited screen time.

That may be the film’s only notable shortcoming: not having the time it needs to really explore the parallels and reverberations within these stories. (It’s rare to observe that a 140-minute movie should perhaps be longer, but here we are.) “The Place Beyond the Pines” bites off a little more than it can chew in that respect, but it’s still a deeply affecting drama with a powerful impact. Cianfrance is one to watch.

B+ (2 hrs., 20 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some violence.)

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