Film review: Harsh lessons for fathers and sons in 'Place Beyond the Pines'

Review • Gosling intense in drama that spans generations.
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Ryan Gosling is a charismatic leading man, so dynamic an actor, that the movies in which he appears can be defined by his presence and his absence — and his latest, the multi-generational drama "The Place Beyone the Pines," is a different movie when he's in it than when he's not.

Gosling commands "The Place Beyond the Pines" from the opening scene, a single-take shot that introduces us to Gosling's character, Luke, and his world. Luke is a carnival performer, a daredevil motorcycle rider whom the camera follows from his trailer across the midway and into the "Globe of Death" in which he rides his bike at breakneck speeds. Luke's life is moving, never staying in one place.

When Luke meets up again with Romina (Eva Mendes) at a stop in Schenectady, New York, he learns that Romina has a baby son, Jason. Luke's son. Luke decides then and there to drop out of the carnival and live in Schenectady (whose name means "the place beyond the pines") helping to raise Jason — even though Romina is now living with another man (Mahershala Ali). But to raise the money to provide for Jason, Luke takes to crime. He works with a garage mechanic, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), to rob the banks and then speed off on his motorcycle.

One robbery ends in a fateful encounter with a rookie cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). That's when the movie's narrative switches from Luke to Avery, and a good deal of the movie's energy fades away.

Avery, we learn, graduated from law school but joined the force because of his idealistic belief in crimefighting. That idealism is tested when, after the robbery incident, some senior cops (led by Ray Liotta) take Avery out for some unofficial police business — which leads them back to Romina.

The third part of the film takes place 15 years later. Avery is an ambitious politician, but is at odds with his spoiled teen son A.J. (Emory Cohen). His worries about A.J. compound when the kid makes a new friend at school: Jason (Dane DeHaan).

Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance, who made the hard-hitting drama "Blue Valentine" with Gosling, is ambitious enough to try a sweeping drama that crosses generations and decades. In part he succeeds, as Luke's sins become reflected in Jason's psychic scars and Avery's cynicism thrown back at him by A.J.'s despondency.

The movie's weakness comes from relying on Cooper as the pivot point. Cooper gives a better performance here than in "Silver Linings Playbook," but he still hasn't crossed that threshold where authentic emotions outplay his matinee-idol looks. (If Cooper needs an example of submerging one's looks for the role, he can look at Mendes, who deglamorizes herself effectively to play the downtrodden Romina.)

But Gosling's energy radiates through the entire picture. Gosling is one of those rare actors who can make you watch intently when his character is doing something wrong — or not doing anything at all. If Gosling is the sun, DeHaan is a fast-rising moon, reflecting Gosling's intensity and augmenting it with his own.

"The Place Beyond the Pines" dares to tell a big story, a sweeping tale of fathers and sons and the enduring damage the past can inflict on the present. Even when that ambition isn't entirely realized, Cianfrance's drive is enough to keep you absorbed.

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'The Place Beyond the Pines'

Ryan Gosling burns through the screen in this intense multi-generational drama.

Where • Area theaters.

When • Opens Friday, April 12.

Rating • R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference

Running time • 140 minutes.