Stars: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta Info: Running time: 140 minutes Rated R (for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference)
The first image you see in "The Place Beyond the Pines" is of Ryan Gosling's shirtless torso, ripped and tatted atop a skin-tight pair of leather pants.
Don't get too excited. The long tracking shot that comes next is actually a better indication of where director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance is headed.
His camera follows Gosling's character from behind, Dardennes-style, through a garishly lighted traveling circus. Gosling's bleach-blonde "Handsome Luke" lights a cigarette and strides calmly but purposefully through his depressing surroundings into a loud and crowded tent, where he confidently climbs onto a motorcycle before entering a ball-shaped cage with two other riders to perform a death-defying stunt.
Over the next two-plus hours and across three connected stories, it will become clear that everything is very dramatic and everyone is doomed. You can try to redeem yourself but it's no use; the past always catches up with us.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" aims admirably for an epic sense of Greek tragedy, and it does have some powerful individual moments, but the characters are all so underdeveloped that the effort feels like studied posturing. The artful grunginess with which Schenectady, N.Y., is depicted feels self-conscious and smothering. In this first section of Cianfrance's triptych, Luke runs into Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress he had a fling with when he was in town a year ago. Turns out her infant son is the child Luke was totally unaware he had. At the encouragement of a loner mechanic, Luke starts robbing banks to support the boy.
This brings us to Bradley Cooper, who anchors the second section. Cooper and Gosling's paths cross only briefly in one scene, but it is, of course, pivotal. Cooper plays rookie police officer Avery Cross, who finds himself caught up with a group of more seasoned cops (led by Ray Liotta) who want to take him under their wing and make him part of their corrupt little gang.
Finally, Cianfrance skips ahead 15 years for part three. Luke's son, Jason, and Avery's son, AJ, happen to cross paths themselves on AJ's first day at a new high school. A palpable sense of danger permeates every moment they spend together but the coincidence is too clever, the parallel is too precious.
Naturally, they are destined to have their legacies destroy them, too. Ultimately, none of this registers the way it should because it's so monotonously morose.