A boxer in the ring, dice rolling, a Holy Bible, a ship setting sail to nowhere, “Heart throb” encircling the neck like a collar, a single tear escaping from an eye. The tattoos of Ryan Gosling’s Luke show scars of bad decisions, impulses and regret. Life left its mark on this man just like Gosling haunts “The Place Beyond the Pines” even when he’s not in it.
Luke is a carnival motorcycle rider, doomed to a Sisyphean life of stunt riding circles in a metal cage. He’s a drifter who breaks hearts in every town he pulls up in, until one woman Romina (Eva Mendes) tells him he has son, Jason, from their earlier dalliance. Schenectady, New York (the Mohawk word for the film’s title) becomes Luke’s home as he tries to provide for Jason as a bank robber. He’s good at it, too, until he meets do-gooder cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), and the two mens’ lives become entwined forever. The story splits into three forks at this point: Luke’s, Avery’s and their two sons.
Director Derek Cianfrance is a master of character studies, but some work better than others. Gosling, with a cigarette perpetually hanging out of his mouth like an extra appendage, smolders with an intensity when he is on screen. Like a version of Driver (the hero of Gosling’s “Drive”) who’s lost his composure, Luke is always spinning out of control and watching Gosling try to contain the situation is gripping.
Luke’s chapter is like a raw indie film, similar to Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” and it’s clearly where he’s most comfortable as a director. Yet when Cianfrance focuses on hero-cop-turned-outcast Avery, the film becomes a sprawling epic of fathers and sons and their legacies. Cianfrance has lofty ideas about the ambiguities between good and evil but not the subtlety to execute them. By the time the long third chapter of the two sons comes, the film bottoms out to melodrama. Mike Patton’s simple effective score of a few eerie piano notes almost seems to play an ironic joke in contrast to the rest of the film’s overwrought plot and moralizing tone.
“When you ride like lightning, you’ll crash like thunder,” a friend tells Luke. Unfortunately, Cianfrance should’ve taken his own advice. Gosling sparks the beginning of the film and leaves everyone else in the dark.