Derek Cianfrance follows his intimate relationship drama Blue Valentine with a large-canvas triptych about crime and punishment, fathers and sons, a crisis in US manhood and the state of the nation.
But its biggest achievement is that it takes aim at these grand themes while keeping hold of the naturalism and the texture of blue-collar daily life that distinguished his previous film.
It begins with swagger: a long tracking shot through the bustle and flashing lights of a travelling carnival; the camera following close behind heavily tattooed bleach-blond stunt rider Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) as he prepares to speed his motorcycle around the inside of a metal-framed "globe of death".
Glanton is another of Gosling's strong-silent-type roles, but just by looking at him you can see that he's an adrenaline junkie who self-identifies as an outlaw. And that if you put a gun in his hand and teach him how to rob a bank, as his mechanic friend does, then things will probably not end well.
It's best not to know beforehand how Bradley Cooper's ambitious cop fits into the story, nor what will happen to the son that Glanton discovers he has fathered with waitress Romina (Eva Mendes), because the ironic twists of fate that befall its characters are one of the chief satisfactions of Cianfrance's near novelistic storytelling.
And if the visceral thrill of the early motorbikes-and-guns scenes wears off, it is a price worth paying for the fact that the story goes into areas and thinks of the consequences that other crime films just don't.