You can't knock a director for being ambitious. The impulse to challenge oneself is just too rare these days. But that doesn't mean you have to love where that director's ambition takes him. In Derek Cianfrance's somber, sprawling follow-up to 2010's Blue Valentine, the filmmaker weaves three stories about the long tendrils of fate into one downer tapestry. Set in drab, dishwater-lit Schenectady, N.Y., The Place Beyond the Pines kicks off its long, slow death march toward heaviness with Ryan Gosling's Luke, a motorcycle daredevil risking his neck as part of a small-time traveling carnival. Luke, whose hair is dyed as blond as toasted straw and who shows off his inked-up biceps under a sleeveless Metallica T-shirt, is blindsided by the discovery that he has an infant son from a one-night stand during his last trip through town. The mother, played by Eva Mendes, has attempted to move on with a new man. But there's a sad, half-hopeful look in her eyes that hints to Luke that the door's still open a crack. So he sticks around, trying to become a good father while turning to a string of bank robberies to support his new family. Luke gets off on the rush of his half-assed stickups or maybe it's the feeling of finally having someone to provide for. Either way, you know it won't end well. After going for one payday too many, he winds up on the wrong end of a shoot-out with the cops.
With that, Cianfrance whiplashes into part 2, narrowing his focus onto Bradley Cooper's Avery Cross, the rookie officer who took down Luke and snowballed into a local-news hero. Weeks later, Cross is still haunted by the incident, especially since he has a son the same age as the one Luke left behind. But he's also driven enough to parlay his newfound fame into a promotion. Is it because he's so sure of his own abilities, or because he's got his sights set even higher on a career in politics? Like so many crucial plot points in this undercooked, overwrought film, it's never clear. Instead of pausing to explain, Cianfrance just pushes headlong into the third (and weakest) chapter of the endless triptych, scrambling to tie a tidy bow on things by showing how the fates of Luke's and Avery's teenage sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) intersect 15 years down the road. All of these overlapping coincidences may remind some people of 2004's Crash and Cianfrance's film is just as phony as Paul Haggis' Best Picture winner. Each twist is more convenient than the last. You don't buy any of them for a second.
The Place Beyond the Pines wants to be a deep-dish meditation on fathers, sons, and the consequences of the decisions we make. But it's a slow-burner that burns so slowly its wick completely fizzles out. Gosling, who simmered with a lowlife intensity in Blue Valentine, escapes from the 140-minute slog the cleanest. He has that rare gift of making unpleasant characters sympathetic. And Mendes, who seems to carry the world's weight on her exhausted shoulders, is quietly heartbreaking. Unfortunately, Cooper draws the short matchstick. His underdrawn character gets tangled up in his director's oversize ambitions. Thanks to Silver Linings Playbook, we now know what he's capable of and it's more than this. C