When you sit down to watch a movie, it’s reasonable to expect to meet the main character fairly early on in the story, build a plot around them for 45 minutes, and, when we are fully invested in the story, a twist tends to shake things up, which in turn sets off a chain of second act events and then the movie ties itself up in a neat – usually happy – bow.

In The Place Beyond the Pines, writer and director Derek Cianfrance has brought together two of Hollywood’s hottest stars and thrown the movie rulebook out of the window, allowing Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling to give, what could be, the performances of their careers.

Working together again after the much-lauded Blue Valentine, it’s clear that Cianfrance and Gosling have a kind of rhythm that is so in tune it jumps out of the screen at you and pulls at your emotions, making sure you take every line of the script to heart.

Gosling plays Luke, a nomadic motorcycle showman, who travels with a circus, entertaining the crowds with his daredevil stunts. The compelling opening scene, when we first meet Luke, is a magnificent one-shot visual feast, which immediately sets the tone for this gritty crime flick.

Back in small town Schenectady, a year after his last visit, Luke is reacquainted with former flame Romina (Eva Mendes) who, it turns out, has had a child by Luke. Struck with a sudden urge to become a family man, Luke literally quits the circus and pledges to take care of his son.

In need of a job and a place to live, Luke hooks up with a local mechanic, Rob (Ben Mendelsohn), but it’s not motors they are fixing; it’s banks they are robbing. And when their first heist goes off without a hitch, Luke is hooked. The money he is pocketing earns respect from an unsuspecting Romina, allowing for us to see hints of what could have been a happy family life.

However, Luke’s greed gets the better of him and sends him on a collision course that changes his life forever. Enter police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), also a dad of one whose life in some ways mirrors that of Luke’s.

At around the one-hour mark we leave Luke behind, and that’s all I will say about that.

The story now shifts its focus to Avery. On the bottom police rung, Avery takes the decision to report some dirty cops, including Deluca (Ray Liotta) for forcing him to swipe cash and drugs from the evidence room. With his colleagues disgraced, we discover that 15 years later Avery has made his way to the top of the ladder.

And now Cianfrance takes another gear-shift, and we meet Luke’s son (Dane DeHaan) and Avery’s boy (Emory Cohen). They have formed an uneasy friendship at school, unaware of how their fates are interlinked. The sins of the fathers rest heavily on their backs and continuously threaten to be repeated.

Cianfrance has essentially pulled three films into one epic – a heist thriller, a police drama and a coming of age story. A complex tale of family and revenge, The Place Beyond the Pines is moody and magnificent – the same can be said of Gosling and Cooper’s performances.

While we have seen Gosling play characters with plenty of depth in previous roles (Drive, Blue Valentine, Ides of March), Cooper - in pre-Silver Linings Playbook days - was very much typecast as the loveable rogue role à la The Hangover. This movie showcases him yet again in the very best light, proving that he has the acting chops to stand up alongside the most noted actors and deserves much meatier and well-crafted roles.

A terrific supporting cast, made up of Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta and relative newcomers Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, are much more than the backbone of this movie. Their measured performances are the heart and lungs of the script that bring the nuances of this story to life.

Adding to the thoughtful and evocative story are a number of fantastic action sequences, which help keep the movie moving along at a nice tempo. To top it off, the whole thing looks superbly elegant. Definitely don’t miss this one.

Suzanne Byrne