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. Not a terribly novel concept but one that Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder hammer home with the utmost seriousness.
Gosling previously worked with the director on the 2010 drama "Blue Valentine," in which he played the husband in a young married couple (opposite an Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams) that was slowly, irreparably crumbling. That story also that was fraught with heartache but we actually felt something because the characters were complex and real and their relationship was vividly detailed.
"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 whole effort feels like studied posturing. Rather than helping to create a recognizable sense of place, the artful grunginess with which Schenectady, N.Y., is depicted feels self-conscious and smothering. That's down to the face tattoo Luke sports: a dagger with a drop of blood under his left eye, which is meant to look like a teardrop. (Once again, he is doing the quietly brooding Brando thing.)
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. (Schenectady, FYI, means "the place beyond the pines" in Iroquois.) Turns out her infant son is the child Luke was totally unaware he had. At the encouragement of a loner mechanic (an effectively creepy Ben Mendelsohn), Luke starts robbing banks to support the boy, even though he and the underwritten Romina would seem to have a stable life now with her new boyfriend (Mahershala Ali).
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. Cooper finds the understatement in his character's conflict — his usual charisma is strangely muted here — but the theme of struggling to escape one's past is overstated once more, especially as Avery tries to establish himself outside the shadow of his own powerful father.
Finally, Cianfrance skips ahead 15 years for part three. Luke's son, Jason (now played by a wiry and intense Dane DeHaan), and Avery's son, AJ (a swaggering, trash-talking Emory Cohen), happen to cross paths themselves on AJ's first day at a new high school. Of all the tables in all the lunchrooms in all the world, he has to sit down at Jason's. 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.
"The Place Beyond the Pines," a Focus Features release, is rated R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference. Running time: 140 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.