Better to have a film with a reach that exceeds its grasp than a movie with no ambition in its pretty little empty head beyond regurgitating the same tired old pabulum.
"The Place Beyond the Pines," director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to his 2010 corrosive marital drama, "Blue Valentine," is plenty ambitious. If, in the end, it collapses on itself from trying to carry too heavy a symbolic load, one can still admire its attempted reach and several of the performances.
The focus of "Pines" is fathers and sons and how the relationship between the two, or lack of, leaves a lasting legacy. The film is essentially a trilogy, focusing sequentially on two men and two youths whose stories intersect.
The first part of the film, easily the strongest, concerns Luke (Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" star Ryan Gosling, in yet another mesmerizing performance), a daredevil motorcycle rider in a traveling carnival. He's covered in tattoos and is your classic sensitive bad boy. During Luke's star turn under a tent, he vrooms about in circles inside a spherical metal cage, an elegant metaphor for the fact that his life is going nowhere.
While performing on night in Schenectady, N.Y., he is visited by Romina (Eva Mendez, in a strong turn), a waitress with whom he hooked up briefly the last time he was in town. Upon learning that she has given birth to his son, Luke decides to stick around town and try being a father, despite the fact that Romina now lives with a decent and dependable man.
Partnering with a lowlife associate (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke soon turns to robbing banks, putting his motorcycle riding skills to use by executing daring, two-wheeled getaways. His new profession leads to his path crossing with that of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a lawyer turned idealistic rookie cop whose father is a powerful judge in town.
Without giving away too much plot, the movie moves on from Luke's story to Avery's --hailed as a hero cop, he suffers from self-doubt -- and then, in its final section, to what happens when the teenage sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) of the two men meet. The boys both bear the scars of having been raised, for differing reasons, with absent fathers, and an antagonism develops between them.
Only the Luke portion of the film succeeds in feeling most of the time as if the characters are more than literary and symbolic conceits. In the second and third parts of the movie, about Avery and the two teenage boys, a viewer is too aware of the puppeteer behind the camera pulling the strings in an attempt to keep the characters dancing to the heavy-handed father-son theme.
That said, there's much to appreciate in "Pines." There's a verisimilitude to the film's settings (it was shot in and around Schenectady) and the performances, especially in the first third, are raw and exciting.
Maybe if the story was told chronologically in reverse, as Harold Pinter did in his 1978 play, "Betrayal," and director Gaspar Noé did in 2002's "Irreversible," it would have accumulated greater poignancy and power.
Hey, just throwing out an idea here for an alternative version to be included on the DVD.