Writer/director Derek Cianfrance certainly couldn't be accused of lacking ambition. In his last film, the meaty romantic saga Blue Valentine, he began at the bitter end of a doomed relationship and worked his way backwards to find out what had gone wrong.
And this equally glum and high-minded crime drama features three interconnected stories and an abrupt and daring midstream change of focus. The common thread in both films is Ryan Gosling, Mickey Mouse Club House alumnus and one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood on the strength of lazily charismatic performances in films like Drive and Lars and the Real Girl.
Here he plays Luke Glanton, a carnival motorbike stuntman whose all-over body tattoos and badly dyed peroxide hair suggest a soul in torment.
When he and his seedy troupe turn up for an engagement in the working-class town of Schenectady, New York, Luke is reunited with Romina (Eva Mendes), a handsome waitress with whom he had a fling the year before. While he seems anxious to rekindle the flames, she's evasive, and he later finds out why. Romina's seeing someone else but, more importantly, she's had a son, Luke's, and doesn't want him in the child's life.
At first, one sides with the accidental father and struggles to understand Romina's heartless attitude. But, when Luke sets out to win her over, we quickly realise she may have a point. Locating Romina's mistrust of him in his penniless and peripatetic lifestyle, Luke decides to quit his job at the carnival and get rich quick. And, after he meets a dodgy car mechanic called Robin (the excellent Ben Mendelsohn), they come up with a failsafe formula for robbing local banks.
Luke holds them up wearing his motorcycle helmet, escapes at high speed on his bike and is met on the edge of town by Robin and his unmarked van. It goes like a dream, but Luke's sudden wealth makes Romina suspicious, and leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.
The Place Beyond the Pines abruptly and brilliantly changes tack midway through, and Bradley Cooper plays another imperfect male who's struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood.
His Avery Cross is a hugely ambitious Schenectady beat cop who becomes a hero after drawing his gun in the line of duty and is fast-tracked for a life in politics. But his ethical shortcuts along the way compromise his personal life and his relationship with his son.
In the film's last segment, the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons as the timeline shifts 15 years into a not-much-rosier future. This chapter proves a bridge too far, pushing the film towards the two-and-a-half-hour mark and indulging in pat resolutions too preachy and obvious for my liking.
That said, however, there's an awful lot of good things in The Place Beyond the Pines (the title, by the way, is a translation of the Mohawk word, Schenectady), not least Cianfrance's spare and gritty writing, fine cinematography and daring storytelling choices.
It's not a perfect film, but it's not a bland one either, and Cianfrance gamely challenges issues like fatherhood, male identity issues, moral turpitude and the lingering stain of violence. Cooper is efficient as the compromised cop, and Gosling's charisma and intensity makes him as compelling as ever.
Gosling has the film star thing in spades, and has shown a real desire to push himself as an actor. Here he manages to get past the supercool criminal he played in Drive and give us a far lonelier and more lost would-be gangster who's his own worst enemy.
Director: Derek Cianfrance Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne.