Derek Cianfrance can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. His first feature, Blue Valentine, attempted to dissect a failed marriage by juxtaposing scenes from the couple’s courtship with scenes from their painful estrangement years later. That device felt a bit schematic, so it’s a relief that he’s at least gone linear with The Place Beyond the Pines, a three-part saga spanning 15 years (and nearly two and a half hours).
Part 1, by far the most effective, involves Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stuntman who starts robbing banks to provide for his newfound family. Bradley Cooper takes over as a self-righteous rookie cop in Part 2, and then the movie jumps ahead in Part 3 to discover what effect these two unusual men have had on their respective sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen), now teenagers attending the same high school.
Sadly, this last section confirms that Cianfrance is at his weakest when he’s striving to delineate cause and effect—you can practically hear rows of dominos falling with each improbable, predetermined move these kids make. Unlike Blue Valentine, however, The Place Beyond the Pines (titled after the English translation of the name of its setting, Schenectady) doesn’t beat you over the head with its working-class anti-pretensions, and Gosling’s hour-long narrative in particular suggests a filmmaker with a real affinity for low-key genre mechanics. Cianfrance may turn out to be one of those artists for whom less is considerably more.