Beginning with a nice, long tracking shot with the camera behind Ryan Gosling's shoulder, director Cianfrance seems to be saying, "I'm making a bold and ambitious film - come along for the ride".
He's safely in Blue Valentine country for the first section, with his muse Gosling playing a similarly non-achieving anti-hero trying to make a go of a seemingly doomed relationship. This time around he's toned up, has a body full of tats and his romantic interest is Eva Mendes.
Gosling does a variation on his Drive character, with two less wheels.
Soon after the characters are set up, the narrative goes into crime mode. An evocative score has kicked in, there's tension, drama and the scene is set for all sorts of possibilities. You feel like you're in good hands.
With the introduction of Bradley Cooper's character, the story turns into more of a examination of police corruption and themes of honour, guilt and morality are examined on various levels. The film takes a dip in intensity, but it's still intriguing.
At this point a satisfying conclusion could've arrived and we'd all go home happily, mulling over the dilemmas the characters had faced and generally admiring a film well made. Sadly, this is the era of worthy two and a half hour films, and Cianfrance has a whole slab of a coda he wants to tell us - most of which feels highly contrived.
The intensity level drops as the film's focus shifts to Bradley Cooper
This final section makes the film feel like a bloated adaptation of a novel in need of major pruning, but it's actually an original screenplay.
So while Pines has plenty of merit, including a zinger of a curve-ball a third of the way through, at the film's end you're asking the wrong kinds of questions, like why is Bradley Cooper's son played by an actor who could pass for his brother? Why does Ben Mendelsohn look younger 15 years later and why has he kept Ryan Gosling's sunglasses for all that time?
We will never know the answers to these questions. We can only hope next time Cianfrance will stop trying to be such a clever pants and go back to the raw and honest storytelling that he's so good at.