A motorcycle stunt rider (Ryan Gosling) considers committing a crime in order to provide for his wife and child, an act that puts him on a collision course with a cop-turned-politician.

Showy but shallow male melodrama.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his celebrated Blue Valentine contains the best and the worst of that film and a great deal more. At times, more seems to be the point of The Place Beyond the Pines, a tri-sected, two-and-a-half hour male-pattern melodrama that connects the lives of three men through a single act of violence. Especially through its overtly, immaculately stylish first hour, Pines threatens to distinguish itself foremost as a monument to Cianfrance’s burning ambition to do something big.

Gosling’s butch vogueing is so practiced even the placement of his cigarette clouds feels blocked to blasé perfection.

Ryan Gosling re-teams with his Blue Valentine director, seemingly still in character as the hot shot of few words he played in Drive. Here Gosling plays Luke, a traveling motocross performer and, as is pointed out later in the film, an outlaw. You might not think people refer to other people as outlaws anymore, but watching the heavily tattooed Luke strut, work a bike, and waggle countless cigarettes between his lips, it’s the only word that will do. Cianfrance strains to achieve that movie-specific aura, and at this point Gosling’s butch vogueing is so practiced even the placement of his cigarette clouds feels blocked to blasé perfection. The self-consciousness at work in the admiring presentation of Luke is eventually taken up by the film’s multi-pronged, earnest meditation on what it means to be a man, but for Pines’ long opening stretch the duo work awfully hard to prove awfully little.

Which is to say it’s all very glamorous, despite the semi-rural setting of Schenectady, New York and its environs. Pines pulses and shimmers with style early on, as Luke is reunited with a fling of a year ago (Eva Mendes), learns that she has given birth to his son, and sets about trying to settle down and finally provide for his unsuspected dependents. Mendes—concerned, resistant—already has a provider (and that’s all the boyfriend played by Mahershala Ali seems to be to her), but this doesn’t stop Luke, who is eventually convinced to try bank robbing by a shady local patron (Ben Mendelsohn). Cianfrance alternates between long, gliding takes and abrupt glimpses, mixing searching handheld camerawork with snapshot scenes that end abruptly, smashing on to something new. In lieu of an absorbing story you get the sense of a director trying to limber up the viewer for the larger shifts to come.

The first of those involves Bradley Cooper, who is given an introduction as unceremonious as Gosling’s is reverent. Cooper plays Avery, a cop and new father whose encounter with Luke sets off a chain of events in his personal and professional life (Rose Byrne plays the mother of his young son). Much as Luke quickly became compulsive about bank robbing, Avery puts his toe over a moral line in his recounting of the events of the showdown, and the dark side soon has a firm grasp of his ankle. Ray Liotta appears as one of the bad cops Avery cedes to and then serves up to his superiors, angling for a more powerful job. For Avery manhood is a matter of position, an idea and an ambition apparently passed down from his father. He pursues it to the exclusion of his own son, carrying the imagined life of Luke’s son closer to his heart.

Of the three segments the best is probably the middle one: Cooper’s strong performance anchors a complex characterization, and Cianfrance moves easily between Avery’s reeling psychology and showier tension-building sequences. Avery’s story is followed by a jump to 15 years later, when Luke and Avery’s sons (strikingly played as teenagers by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) cross paths in high school and reckonings are enacted through them. Though it feels like the film’s biggest problem is that of focus, Pines acquires a cumulative force during its final third, a rewarding gravity that gathers the free-floating emotions called up throughout the film together and sets them down with the weight of meaning. Like Blue Valentine, Pines is ultimately an actor’s showcase, with Cianfrance admiring and indulging his cast, sometimes to memorable effect and sometimes at the expense of his viewer and the story he’s trying to tell.