Luke's intentions are noble, but he barely has money to support himself, let alone contribute to the baby's upbringing. A seedy mechanic friend of his, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), suggests a simple bank robbery -- not a lavish heist, but an old-fashioned stick-up by a masked bandit, with Robin as getaway man. You don't even need a real gun. Luke, embracing the idea, is disconcertingly cavalier about it ("Not since Hall & Oates has there been such a team!" he jokes), and we come to see that his cool, meek demeanor -- a Gosling specialty -- has an unpredictable, erratic side to it (another Gosling specialty).
At a point much later in the movie than major characters are usually introduced, Luke encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a heroically injured rookie cop whose career ambitions, like Luke's, are partly driven by a desire to take care of his family. But in addition to his worried wife (Rose Byrne), Avery feels pressure from his retired judge father (Harris Yulin), who's pushing him down a difficult path, and from seasoned-but-shady colleagues like Deluca (a typically imposing Ray Liotta), who expect him to toe the line with regard to their extralegal activities. This pattern of fathers and sons trying to please each other while also escaping one another's influence is repeated again when we meet A.J. (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan), teenagers with opposite upbringings but a shared disconnect with their fathers.
Gosling, who also starred in Cianfrance's Blue Valentine and looks like his younger, handsomer brother, has proven a useful avatar for the director's examination of well-intentioned but messed-up men. Gosling's puppy-dog cuteness, beaming out from under the grime of the character's ratty T-shirts and acid-wash jeans, can't help but make him sympathetic to the end. Cooper does respectable work as the conflicted cop, and the young men cast as teenagers do what they can with somewhat limited screen time.
That may be the film's only notable shortcoming: not having the time it needs to really explore the parallels and reverberations within these stories. (It's rare to observe that a 140-minute movie should perhaps be longer, but here we are.) The Place Beyond the Pines bites off a little more than it can chew in that respect, but it's still a deeply affecting drama with a powerful impact. Cianfrance is one to watch.