Cianfrance's followup to Blue Valentine tells a three-part story about fathers and sons, and how the sins of the former are visited upon the latter.
We begin with Ryan Gosling, playing a stunt motorcycle rider who travels with a small carnival. During the carnival's annual visit to Schenectady (a Mohawk word which translates roughly as the movie's title), he drops in on Eva Mendes, with whom he'd had a one-night stand during his last visit. His relationship with her and her family, and his attempts to win a more permanent place in their lives, make up the first chunk of the movie.
For the second chunk, we abruptly shift focus to Bradley Cooper, a local cop, and follow the beginnings of his rise through the police (and local political) ranks. This is the most hackneyed piece of the movie, a tired story of corrupt cops and the superior officers who choose to remain blind to their behavior.
Part three begins with a "fifteen years later" title card, and our new central characters are the sons of Gosling and Cooper, played respectively by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. The complicated relationship between their fathers becomes an issue between the boys, leading (but, of course) to A Terrible Tragedy.
The performances are fine, though DeHaan and (particularly) Cohen are, even by Hollywood movie standards, far too old to be playing 16-year-olds. Cooper is particularly badly served by the 15 year time jump, looking too old in the first half of the movie and not old enough in the second half.
The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that each of the three sections has enough story to justify a full movie of its own. Part of why the stories all feel so cliched, I think, is that we're rushing through them and hitting only the obvious narrative high points, instead of giving each story the time it needs to breathe, time that would allow for characters and situations to be developed beyond the superficial. We've got six or seven hours of movie stuffed into 140 minutes.
And with all of the new financing and distribution options available to directors these days, it's increasingly hard to justify making a movie that is either too long or too short for the story it wants to tell. Within the last year, we've seen major directors go outside the feature film world to tell longer stories -- Jane Campion's done a 7-hour miniseries for the Sundance Channel; David Fincher's produced a 13-hour series for Netflix -- and surely after the rapturous reception of Blue Valentine, Cianfrance could have found some such alternate home for this project. As a feature film, though, it feels sadly cramped and familiar.