You'd think director Derek Cianfrance had never seen a movie before, given the disregard for narrative and visual conventions in his new film, The Place Beyond the Pines. It's like—and I mean this in the nicest way possible—an art therapist instructed him to dramatize his daddy issues, and all they gave him for reference was a motocross video, Hall & Oates's H20, and a beat-up copy of The Outsiders.
Of course, Cianfrance has seen plenty of movies—he directed 2010's Blue Valentine, that brutal little anatomy of a failed relationship—and, structurally at least, Pines is fairly conventional. The film is made up of three interlocking stories: It opens on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who makes his living as a daredevil with a traveling carnival. When he rolls into Schenectady, New York, he's surprised to learn that the last time he was in town, he fathered a son. He quits his carnival job to be near his kid and is soon so broke that he turns to robbing banks. When rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) busts Luke, the narrative baton is handed to Cooper's character, who goes on to investigate corruption in the police force. Avery has a young son of his own, the same age as Luke's boy, and the third (and strongest) leg of the film's triptych takes place 15 years in the future, when the two boys meet in high school.
Gosling is a beautiful man, even scrawled as he is here with crude prison tattoos, and Cianfrance knows it: The movie opens on a close-up of his torso, and the film's first third pretty much hinges on Gosling's ability to create a compelling character out of little more than some scraps of dialogue, a badass bike, and his very pretty face. (Which he does.) Like Bob Seger, Luke is more myth than man, and Pines ratchets up the tension to uncomfortable levels even as it keeps Luke largely a blank slate. When it shifts gears to focus on Cooper's character, Pines suddenly finds footing in more fully grounded characters, and begins to hint at larger thematic concerns about fatherhood, blood ties, and blood feuds.
Pines is a big, jumpy, restless film, filled with intriguing characters whose motives remain tantalizingly hazy. But it's also got grand ambitions, and these very qualities are what make it frustrating: It's far more effective as a character study than as commentary on fathers and sons. Days later, I'm still thinking about the film's idealized, vulnerable snapshots of masculinity—and I'm still not sure what I was supposed to take away from it all.