The chiseled and erratically tattooed torso of Ryan Gosling commands the screen in the opening shot of The Place Beyond the Pines. It’s a torso which defies a switchblade Gosling flings around like a nunchuck in his carnival camper before processing to the “Cage of Death.” It’s a mesmerizing opening sequence, janglingly percussive and intimate, and it preludes the physical violence and -- bizarre as it sounds -- emotional danger to come. Gosling, as stunt biker Luke Glanton, wields the same brooding, mysterious force he did in Drive. And much like in that film, his character says very little, even as he encounters humongous life obstacles. Luke becomes an outlaw, robbing banks to provide for the young son he discovers while in Schenectady, New York. His crimes set him on a collision course with young cop Avery Cross -- played by the earnest Bradley Cooper -- and a chain of ramifications that complicate and qualify the father-son relationship.
Director Derek Cianfrance is a genius of claustrophobia. He choreographs scenes in small rooms, corridors, and trailers which all careen toward climaxes in part because the tension itself seems to ricochet off the walls. He’s divined masterful performances from his two leading men, but the film ultimately suffers from a lack of specificity. Too broad a scope, maybe, or too much purpose. Pines is broken into three discrete chapters -- a triptych format that Cianfrance has been tooling with for years -- the third of which jumps 15 years forward in time. That alone is frustrating, but more so because important narrative strands are sometimes only loosely tied up and other times forsaken wholesale. It’s like a joke with an amazing premise and then a series of almost auxiliary half-baked punchlines.
But it’s an incredible movie to look at, by golly, a straight-up visual feast. Mike Patton’s score is chilling and hypnotic and the camerawork is complex and precise. A messy epic is still an epic, folks, and Cianfrance’s ambition and knack for sensory storytelling will appeal to most movie fans.