If nothing else, The Place Beyond the Pines surprised me. I wasn’t surprised that it was a compelling film: the cast features Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes, not to mention writer/director Derek Cianfrance, whose last effort was the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine. Thanks to the trailer I wasn’t surprised to see a few tastefully minimalist action sequences. But the screenplay and its three-act structure did surprise me, and I appreciated Cianfrance’s willingness to buck filmic tradition in his plot. Each act focuses on a new protagonist, with the previous act’s leading role receding, in one way or another, to the periphery.

The film opens by introducing Luke (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who performs with a traveling carnival. Upon returning to Schenectady, NY, he learns that he has a son with Romina (Mendes), a fling from the previous year. Unable to find enough work after quitting the circus, he resorts to robbing banks to provide for his newfound family.

It is the goal of any half-serious filmmaker to craft characters with depth. Unfortunately, this results in myriad films with a heart-of-gold criminal or a crooked cop. Such flatly “deep” protagonists cannot carry a film. While The Place Beyond the Pines has a few such roles, the protagonists (namely Gosling’s Luke and Cooper’s Avery) have convincing and compelling complexity. On the surface, Luke seems like your standard good-guy criminal, stealing from the rich to pay for his son’s crib. But as the first act progresses, you learn that in addition to being gallant, he is kind of an a**hole. At one point, Luke beats a man in the face with a wrench with little provocation. Luke is neatly exemplified by his robbery scenes—he screams at and demeans the bystanders and bank tellers, but you can tell from Gosling’s cracking, strained delivery that he isn’t happy to do so. Avery initially seems to be a good-guy cop innocently swept up in corruption, but his chastity is soiled when he schemes and leverages his position into a Machiavellian victory.

Cianfrance deftly utilizes plot parallelism and repeated shots to set characters alongside one another. Using the same shots, Luke and Avery are shown in the exact same place, attempting to give the same wad of cash to Romina. The parallels continue when grown-up Jason (Dane DeHaan) is shown riding his bicycle in precisely the same frame used to show Luke cruising around on his dirtbike.

One central theme of the film is mentioned verbatim with such frequency that I cannot go without mentioning it: heroism. Although Avery is repeatedly lauded as a hero by his friends, families and coworkers on-screen, Cianfrance places no character on a pedestal. Instead, each is given his or her moment of courage. It is unclear who we are “supposed” to root for, or if rooting for someone is even appropriate. At the end of nearly any good film, I feel empathy for the protagonist. After watching The Place Beyond the Pines, there is no clear choice for which scenario to relate to. Am I sprawled dead on the pavement, blood pooling beneath my cracked skull? Am I alone in the woods, kneeling and reeling after nearly being executed? Or am I escaping my past on an old Honda motorcycle?