The first thing we see in Derek Cianfrance’s solemn and serious-minded “The Place Beyond the Pines” is the lean, muscled torso of Ryan Gosling pacing around a trailer with caged aggression and flipping a switchblade knife. A long Steadicam shot follows as he dons a shirt and strides through the neon night of a circus grounds, arriving at a tent where the din of beery crowds and revving engines await his entry into the Globe of Death.
Gosling is stunt motorcyclist Handsome Luke Glanton, whose drifter’s life of cheap thrills is interrupted when he discovers that he fathered a child with a diner waitress (Eva Mendes) during a carnival stopover in Schenectady, N.Y. Overcome with paternal guilt, he quits the circus and to make ends meet teams up with a backwoods grease monkey (Ben Mendelsohn)—first to fix cars, then to rob banks in a series of strikingly choreographed scenes that rank with the car chase in James Gray’s “We Own the Night” among the most original action sequences in recent American cinema.
The title of “The Place Beyond the Pines” refers to the Mohawk etymology of Schenectady’s namesake and the so-called whispering pines in the outer reaches of present day Schenectady County, but it’s also a metaphysical place of hopeful despair, similar to the darkness on the edge of town imagined by Bruce Springsteen, whose “Dancing in the Dark” blasts on the soundtrack following Luke’s first successful bank robbery.
Luke is a loner and a loser, not unlike the abusive blue-collar husband Gosling played in Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” which used an experimental two-pronged narrative to show the amorous courtship and violent unraveling of a failed marriage.
Cianfrance takes an even bolder risk here, abruptly shattering the narrative in midstream with a moment of unexpected violence and picking up the story of rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), whose life will be forever changed by his brief encounter with Handsome Luke.
When the film again shifts narrative gears in the third segment of its triptych and leaps forward 15 years to focus on the sons of the Gosling and Cooper characters, it’s a bad miscalculation and a too obvious recapitulation of Cianfrance’s thesis that (to borrow another Springsteen line) “you’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past.”
It’s a rebuttal to Nick Carraway’s assertion that “you can’t repeat the past” in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”—the trailer of which preceded the print of “The Place Beyond the Pines” currently screening at the Roxy in Burlington.
The past, Cianfrance makes earnestly clear, is a living creature, incarnate in the children of men whose transgressions are inescapable and tragically repeatable.