In "The Place Beyond the Pines," Ryan Gosling plays Handsome Luke, a motorcycle stuntman with neck tattoos, a butterfly knife and a pack of smokes in his waistband. Luke is another brute-of-few-words role for Gosling ("Drive," "Gangster Squad"), a new-millennium Steve McQueen whose pretty face and cruel blue eyes make a potent combination. And don't forget Gosling's chiseled bod -- it's this movie's opening image.
That promises a certain level of sex and violence, and "The Place Beyond the Pines" initially delivers. In its first third, Luke begins robbing banks to support the child he never knew he had (Eva Mendes plays the baby's mama). This story is gritty and gripping, but just as things get hot, the narrative switches gears.
Now we're focused on Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young cop navigating a web of politics and corruption. Cooper is quite convincing as a do-gooder slowly realizing he was born to do bad, but this story also ends abruptly. Fifteen years later, the teenage sons of Luke and Avery unwittingly meet, with fateful results.
This is daring storytelling from filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, reteaming with Gosling after 2010's marvelous "Blue Valentine," though it's the terrific cast that keeps you watching. The lesser-knowns are the best: Ben Mendelsohn ("Killing Them Softly") turns the minor role of Luke's only pal, Robin, into a major heart tugger; Emory Cohen plays Cross' son with a slippery mix of rapper swagger and homoeroticism; Dane DeHaan, as Luke's damaged, dangerous offspring, delivers the film's most riveting performance. (Look for DeHaan as Harry Osborn in the next "Spider-Man" film.)
For all that, "The Place Beyond the Pines" simply doesn't hang together. Its three stories are so loosely connected, its themes so scattered -- morality, justice, fate, fatherhood -- that it never manages to make a point. For such a well-crafted and wonderfully acted film, it ultimately elicits a shrug.
PLOT The actions of a petty criminal reverberate through several lives.
RATING R (violence, language, drug use)
BOTTOM LINE Terrific performances, particularly from rising star DeHaan, but the muddled narrative never gets its point across. Ultimately, it's a well-made head-scratcher.