The first image you see is of Ryan Gosling's shirtless torso, ripped and tatted atop a skintight pair of leather pants. But the long tracking shot that comes next is a better indication of where director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance is headed.
His camera follows Gosling's character from behind through a garishly lighted traveling circus. Gosling's bleach-blond "Handsome Luke" lights a cigarette and strides calmly but purposefully into a loud and crowded tent, where he climbs onto a motorcycle before entering a ball-shaped cage with two other riders to perform a death-defying stunt.
Over the next two-plus hours and across three connected stories, it will become clear that everything is very dramatic and everyone is doomed. You can try to redeem yourself but it's no use; the past always catches up with us.
Not a terribly novel concept but one that Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder hammer home with the utmost seriousness.
Part one focuses on Luke trying to be a father to the infant son he never knew he had with a waitress (Eva Mendes) he had a fling with the last time he passed through town. Part two follows the rookie police officer (Bradley Cooper) whose path he crosses at a pivotal moment. And the final part jumps ahead 15 years as both men's sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) forge an ill-advised friendship.
The film aims admirably for an epic sense of Greek tragedy, and it does have some powerful individual moments, but the characters are so underdeveloped that the whole effort feels like studied posturing.
Rating: R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference.
Running time: 140 minutes.