Back in 1997, carnival stunt rider Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) was back in his old haunts, performing in a show where his motorcycle would fly around inside a large globe with three others, narrowly missing one another. The crowd lapped it up, but he had other things on his mind as he noticed his old girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes) was standing nearby, observing him, so he approached her and offered her a ride home. She took that offer, and once back at her house she kissed him on the cheek and that was about that, no matter that he wanted to take things further. But Romina had moved on, and Luke was without direction...
Many audiences who had caught director Derek Cianfrance's previous film Blue Valentine were very keen to see what he came up with next, and what that was turned out to be three films in one deliberately paced affair. Nobody could fault his ambition, and with a running time of nearly two and a half hours featuring a plot straddling fifteen years you could almost observe he had too much on his plate. The main selling point for that previous effort for many had been to see Gosling flex his acting muscles, which the fans' admiration for him had oddly prevented them from seeing what a deadbeat character he was playing; there were no such ambiguities here, as Luke was a reprobate through and through.
Except he had his good qualities or else Romina would have never got together with him, and given birth to his son as a result. When Luke finds this out his nowhere existence dawns on him and he wants to make up for that by being part of the baby's life as he grows up, the trouble being his ex already has a new, more stable partner in Kofi (Mahershala Ali) and he doesn't have any money to spend on the infant anyway. So he gets a job with mechanic Robin, who as he's played by Ben Mendelsohn, a past master at disreuptable types, soon leads him astray, not that Luke needed much persuasion, and he becomes the motorcycle bandit terrorising the Shenectady area.
The point of this only becomes clear gradually, but essentially it was the old, old story about how far a child can be linked to the behaviour of their father. Fair enough, the amount of kids who turn to crime simply because their father did it might not be in the majority of the population, but Cianfrance had to implement, some would say force, dramatic license to make his themes more apparent, at least by the point the third tale comes around. Plus there was no doubt that parents have an influence over their offspring, though in this case when baby Jason grows up to be a teenager (Dane DeHaan) he has been without his natural father for so long that it's surprising how much he is affected by him.
The site of the title seems to represent a place of reckoning, as every time the characters end up there something will occur to change their lives, often with a sinister hue; a repeated image is of a vehicle, be it bicycle, motorbike or car, travelling the road between two lines of tall pine trees, a visual heavy with anticipation and meaning, though what that might be is not stated outright. In the middle section, Bradley Cooper takes centre stage as a cop who comes to realise he has fallen up to his neck in corruption, though part of that has been his own fault when he shot first when confronting an armed robber - the very moralistic screenplay has him suffer for this for quite some time, just as every wrongdoing the players participate in has to be punished in its way. As for that ending, it suggests you can atone for your sins (there was a religious angle to this should you care to seek it out), but that there is a cycle to life which comes and goes, and repeats for better or worse. Although by that point, many fans were wondering, where's Ryan? Music by Mike Patton.