The Place Beyond the Pines ★★½

I'm not a big college football guy, but anybody who even casually follows it knows that you can compete for a national championship if you lose a game... that loss just better come at the beginning of the season and not at the end. Basically, you're penalized for leaving a bad last impression.

If only this triptych's final section was as satisfying as its first and second, through most of which co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance offers a consuming meditation on masculinity, parental legacies and the slippery slope of compromise one traverses when making misguided, desperate decisions.

But then, such a reversal simply wouldn't have been possible with "Pines," since Cianfrance's primary preoccupation seems to be payoff, the culmination of his carefully constructed narrative connections. Can a film suffer from an over-abundance of stakes? Yes, apparently, as Cianfrance serves up too much plotting and coincidence, resulting in too much predictability and, most troubling, too many characters who appear powerless in the face of their circumstances -- those circumstances being that the filmmaker needs them to do and say certain things to ensure everyone will be in their proscribed positions at the predestined time. The human frailty on display here is too messy for everything to fit together so neatly.

At one point in section two, Bradley Cooper's cop tells his state supreme court judge father -- in classic Michael Corleone "That's my family, Kay, that's not me" form -- that he's just not as calculated as his more politically-minded old man is. A little less calculation by Cianfrance would have gone a long way toward redeeming some nice camera and editing work, along with terrific performances by Gosling, Ben Mendelsohn and Dane DeHaan, among many others. (Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne are largely wasted, but I'm hesitant to insist on fully-dimensional female characters in a movie 'about' the way family is often the collateral damage of a man's ambition.)

Alas, I'm still not sold on Cooper, but his performance in the scene talking to a police psychiatrist isn't just better than anything in "Silver Linings Playbook," for which he earned a Best Actor nomination -- it's probably the best thing I've seen him do, period. For once the wheels-always-turning actor doesn't telegraph the arc of the scene.

Real discovery occurs before our eyes. I wanted more of it, or at least the illusion of it, from this film.