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A 'Place Beyond the Pines' where two actors shine ★★★ 1/2

In director Derek Cianfrance's previous feature, "Blue Valentine," pretension found itself in a stern deadlock with dramatic honesty. Thanks to the performance of Michelle Williams, opposite the flashier, more contrived flourishes of Ryan Gosling, the results were worth seeing.

Now, however, Cianfrance has stepped up with "The Place Beyond the Pines," a more sprawling and ambitiously structured story, again co-starring Gosling. It is a better, more fully felt and moving picture than "Blue Valentine." Gosling and co-star Bradley Cooper have stepped up as well, finding the value in interacting as well as the quiet isolation of men in crisis.

The reviews have been a little sniffy thus far, as the film has traveled from the festival circuit into limited theatrical release. The best course of action is to see it, then figure out what does or doesn't work for you in its tales of sons, fathers, moral compromise and the harsh, beautiful business of living.

Describe some of co-writer and director Cianfrance's narrative details, and "The Place Beyond the Pines," like its title, sounds a tad grandiose. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt performer traveling with a two-bit carnival. Coming through Schenectady, N.Y., on his annual tour, he learns he has fathered a son with a local waitress (Eva Mendes), now living with a man (Mahershala Ali) who doesn't like Luke sniffling around.

Pulling a page from the Billy Bigelow "Carousel" playbook, Luke turns to bank robbery at the behest of his pal Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). It goes well for a while. Luke's ardent attempts to establish something like a familial connection with his infant son complicate the audience's relationship to the film's protagonist. And then, for reasons I'll leave you to discover, the focus shifts to a police officer, played by Cooper, whose life changes forever the day he becomes the hero (the word haunts him the rest of the film) who pursued the "moto-bandit."

I love how "The Place Beyond the Pines" hands off from the criminal to the law enforcement officer. I love also how, in a daring "15 years later" leap forward, it becomes a story of the male teenage offspring of the troubled men played by Gosling and Cooper. There's an encompassing sense of destiny guiding the events of Cianfrance's movie, but the people in it really do seem like people, not pieces of plot.

Separately, the components of "Pines" are familiar: Ray Liotta, among others, plays a dirty cop, for example, and nothing in a sentence containing "Ray Liotta" and "dirty cop" could possibly surprise anyone. But the script co-written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder gives both male and female halves of the on-screen relationships their due as flawed, intriguingly knotty members of the same species.

Its final third putters a bit. 140 minutes doesn't feel indulgent, exactly, just occasionally slack. But it's not enough to lessen the achievement. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography refuses to glamorize these people or the places they inhabit; in the same vein, editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane and composer Mike Patton keep the momentum flowing subtly. You watch what happens, often dreading the worst. Even when the worst comes, though, it comes with honor and a kind of grace.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Place Beyond the Pines' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference)
Running time: 2:20
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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