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Jonathan Romney on The Place Beyond the Pines: A motorcycle bandit who runs out of gas

Ryan Gosling is a laconic outlaw riding through an epic, dirty America ... but he's no Brando

Audacity is so rare in today's cinema that film-makers automatically get merit points for just having the nerve. The nerve to do what? In the case of the unpredictable The Place Beyond the Pines, I'm loath to tell you, but I will – just the other side of that SPOILER ALERT! looming a few paragraphs away.

However, among other things, Derek Cianfrance has had the nerve to make a Ryan Gosling vehicle that isn't really one. He kicks off with a bravura tracking shot that starts in-close on Gosling's tattooed torso, then follows him as he slouches through the crowded, neon-soaked alleys of a fairground at night, and into the Big Top, where this moody, sinuous shot erupts into action. For Gosling is Luke, a hot-shot motorcyclist with a travelling fair whose speciality is the old three-bikes-in-a-globe-of-iron routine.

The film begins as a story of blue-collar love gone sour. The previous year, Luke blew into town just long enough to impregnate local woman Romina (Eva Mendes), who now has a baby boy. Tough, leathery loner Luke is a man of few words, but just enough of them to get out in a strangulated Brando mumble that he'd like to stick around and provide an income for mother and son. He does this by robbing local banks and then zooming off at full tilt.

Luke and his bike prove uncatchable until – and now a SPOILER ALERT! in 10ft flaming letters comes screeching into view – Luke runs foul of a police patrolman. The cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), is an all-round decent guy working his way up through the ranks, and is hailed as a hero. But to be a good cop in an American crime movie can only mean one thing – Avery will soon be ruinously undermined by moral compromise.

For quite a while, you marvel at what this film is attempting, and fully expect that it will bring it off. Director and co-writer Cianfrance showed in his previous films, Blue Valentine and the little-seen Brother Tied, that he has a talent for realist lyricism and a nice loose way with narrative flow. Here, he spins a compelling variant on what you might call the Psycho ploy – getting us totally involved with one character, then whipping that character off the stage to focus on another. It soon becomes clear what the upshot is: that an essentially heroic, big-hearted bad 'un (Luke) scores higher on the morality stakes than a good guy (Avery) who gets confused and ends up playing the same rotten game as his superiors. In other words, this is a modern Western opposing two differently tragic men – doomed outlaw and flawed sheriff.

In the final stretch, however, the film becomes too explicitly a parable about bad karma – as the drama's third act is played out by the two men's now teenaged sons, one of whom finally gets to ride off into the wild, untamed landscape. (The film's mythic-sounding title comes from the Mohawk name for the place now called Schenectady, New York.)

Refreshingly twisty till about halfway, The Place ... gets less dynamic from there on, and ends up as another of those earnest American dramas about how boys would turn out right if only their dads would be there for them. All credit to Cianfrance for his ambition and his willingness to stretch out: this is another noble example of American cinema's facing up to the new TV drama and its command of long-form narrative. But The Place ... is a needlessly long and ultimately rather arduous ride, a little too close to the solemnities of films such as Babel and their ambition to do the Human Condition through braided stories.

Still, much of it had me hooked. It has great casting (along with the stars, you get Ray Liotta, Harris Yulin, Ben Mendelsohn doing his peerless abject thing). And that first act with Gosling and a commandingly downbeat Mendes – this is dirty-realism Americana with a kinetic kick. Those searing candy-coloured lights! Those breakneck road chases! That widescreen, gritty-but-glorified cinematography by Sean Bobbitt! The film has nerve, it has verve, it has surprises, and for something like 100 minutes, it'll more than do.