After spending nearly 12 years developing "Blue Valentine" (2010), writer/director Derek Cianfrance was able to finance this sprawling family drama, which he's been working on for almost two decades.

Set in Schenectady in upstate New York, this epic, multi-generational triptych unfolds over 16 years in three distinct acts. Act One introduces Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle daredevil/drifter in a traveling carnival, who discovers that he is the father of a baby boy, Jason, from a one-night fling with Romina (Eva Mendes) the year before. Determined to take care of them, despite Romina's continuous rejections, he partners with a mechanic friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob banks -- which ends in a disastrous encounter with an ambitious rookie cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), whose father (Harris Yulin) is a state Superior Court judge. Act Two traces conflicted hero/cop Cross' political rise, despite menacing, corrupt detective Deluca (Ray Liotta) and an irritable DA (Bruce Greenwood), and his futile attempt to balance his professional life with his marriage to Jennifer (Rose Byrne); significantly, their son, AJ, is the same age as Jason. Then Act Three flashes forward 15 years, following their respective sons -- teenage Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) -- who share a fateful, symmetrical legacy.

Sharing writing credit with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, Cianfrance maintains a serious tone and earthy naturalism, using minimalist dialogue that's totally lacking in subtlety or irony. But Cianfrance's somber craftsmanship, particularly his use of mounting tension, is admirable, although the rambling, linear pace is plodding and choppily melodramatic.

In addition to bleaching his hair and covering himself with tattoos, hunky Gosling put on about 40 pounds of pumped-up muscle for the mystique of the role. He's convincing, as are Cooper, Eva Mendes and Dane DeHaan. FYI: the poetic title is derived from the Iroquois Nation meaning of Schenectady.

More Information

Fact box

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "A Place Beyond the Pines" is a suspenseful, if self-indulgent 6 -- a somber identity story about fathers and sins.