An ambitious and epic tale of tragedy and redemption among fathers and sons, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) lets this multi-generational triptych of a film run away from him as it plays into its final third. Yet there’s such a strong sense of the film’s intentions, along with a superb performance from Ryan Gosling, that it remains a watchable – if long – experience.
Gosling plays motorcycle trickster Luke, a tattooed drifter working in a travelling circus, with little more to his name than the ragged clothes on his back and his precious motorbike. Returning to the small town of Schenectady, he discovers that he fathered a son to Romina (Eva Mendes) when he blew through a year earlier. Although Romina now has a new man in her life, Luke is determined not repeat the sins of his father and insists he will take care of mother and child. But the way he provides support is tainted by his complicated bouts of violence and a decision to make some fast cash by robbing a bank with low-life friend Robin, superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn.
The second segment of the narrative involves thoughtful policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) called to track down Luke in the line of duty, and who also has a troubled relationship with his baby son. In the final part of the film Cianfrance examines the relationships that have developed between fathers and sons fifteen years later, and the way that the errors and omissions of one generation are passed to the next.
It is blood – inherited and spilt – that unites the three stories, Cianfrance carefully and cleverly placing scenes in each third of the narrative in the same locations, giving the film a poetic sense of echo. However, the usual structure of the film, many underwritten scenes (particularly involving police corruption in part two), and the fact that no-one looks fifteen older when we fast forward, challenge the viewer to remain fully connected. The energy built early with Gosling’s performance as a brooding, powerless man desperate to find some way to break the cycle of poor parenting is never matched by the writing and style of the remainder of the film. By the time the credits roll, the wandering journey – through police procedural, thrilling car chases, gut-wrenching robberies and routine domestic concerns of love and care – seems less than the sum of its parts.