Ryan Gosling is a sight in “The Place Beyond the Pines,’’ and not for the usual reasons. His hair’s cropped short and dyed platinum blond. Awkward, hand-scratched tattoos crawl along his chest and up his neck; you wonder what will happen when they reach his brain. The actor’s steady stare has a desperate edge to it, as though the Driver from “Drive’’ had misplaced his Zen.
Gosling’s character, a fairground stunt-cyclist named Luke, anchors the first third of “Pines,’’ the new feature from “Blue Valentine’’ director Derek Cianfrance. That 2010 drama about the dissolution of a marriage announced an up-and-coming filmmaker’s talent for getting under the skins of inarticulate characters, using a cinematic style of bruised colors, brooding soundtrack choices, and restless camera moves. It was an ambitious film that, at its intermittent best, felt entirely organic and real.
Cianfrance’s ambitions are much more in evidence this time out. “The Place Beyond the Pines’’ is a triptych: three successive story lines about Luke, a young cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper), and — 15 years later — their respective teenage sons, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen). It’s very much a film about men, their yearnings and discontents, and about the way sins tumble down from one generation to the next. It’s a bank-robber movie, too, as well as a drama about the pressures teenagers face from parents and peers. You can feel Cianfrance biting off more and more until his mouth is too full to chew.
Of the three chapters, the first is easily the least forced. With minimal dialogue and maximum visual style, “Pines’’ hovers behind Luke as he moves through his world, gracefully on a motorcycle and unsteadily on foot. He’s a young carny who rides in circles inside a metal ball; there are two other riders, but Luke’s the star of the show. Passing through Schenectady, N.Y., on the circus’s annual circuit, he learns that Romina (Eva Mendes), a local beauty he seduced the previous year, has borne him a son. This news is a revelation: Always rootless, Luke is suddenly possessed with the desire to remain in one place.
Problem: Romina has a steady boyfriend (Mahershala Ali), a do-right sort who’s raising the child. Luke buzzes in wobbly circles around them, falling in with a garage mechanic (a movingly tender Ben Mendelsohn) with bad ideas about raising quick cash. The robbery scenes are ugly and violent, graceless disasters that prove how hapless Luke is when he’s not in a cage.
Gosling’s eerie charisma — the way he can convey a stillness at the center of chaos — gives the first third of “The Place Beyond the Pines’’ a sense of both rapture and tragedy, but the film becomes more programmatic and problematic when it moves on to the second story line, involving Cooper’s naive policeman. Avery’s a rich kid, a law school graduate, who’s pounding a beat because he believes that’s where the real people live. What he learns about his fellow cops probably won’t surprise you — especially when I tell you Ray Liotta’s involved — but you can feel Cianfrance’s uncertainty when the genre conventions kick in. He’s an intuitive filmmaker who seems to work best against plot structure rather than with it.
Sadly, “Pines’’ becomes more hemmed in by plot as it goes. Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder apparently went through 37 drafts before they were done, and you believe it: The final third feels like the work of talented men trying too hard to erase their footsteps. It hardly helps that Cohen, as the thuggishly entitled son of Cooper’s policeman (now a crusading DA running for state attorney general), gives an obnoxious baby-Brando performance — one of those acting jobs where you can’t figure out whether you’re irritated at the character or at the actor.
Nor does Mendes’s halfhearted old-age makeup convince, especially since Cooper only seems to have had a haircut in the intervening decade and a half. Even more damaging is the soundtrack by Faith No More bandleader Mike Patton, a doomy collection of synthesized sighs and scrapes that makes the movie sound much chintzier than it actually is.
But DeHaan gives a fine performance, racked and sensitive, as Luke’s son, and it’s in him that Cianfrance’s themes of sin and forgiveness most clearly find purchase. “The Place Beyond the Pines’’ is great to look at (Sean Bobbitt shot it), and the scenes with Gosling burn with a loss too powerful for words. Maybe that’s the problem. Cianfrance hasn’t figured out what he wants to say, but he spends a lot of time and energy trying to say it.