‘The Place Beyond the Pines” is where writer-director Derek Cianfrance gets to show that his previous film, “Blue Valentine,” was no fluke, that this is an artist expanding his abilities and coming into his own way of presenting the world and telling stories.

Movie review

4 1/2 (out of five stars)

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne

Rated: R for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

His latest movie is huge in its ambition and almost as huge in its achievement.

The story of “The Place Beyond the Pines” comes in three waves and advances over a period of years. It doesn’t focus on one event or one person, and if there is a moral to it or some message to be gleaned, it’s nothing easy or obvious.

Cianfrance is getting at a feeling, a mood and a perception of life, a sense of how things tend to work between people.

In this movie, nothing is as good or as bad as it seems from the outside. Every person is a little tawdry and a little exalted. And surrounding everyone is the world — ever-present, unwatched and yet beautiful — rich in color and waiting to be noticed by somebody, if only the audience.

The evocative title is the literal meaning (in Iroquois) of “Schenectady,” the city in New York where the movie takes place. It begins with a long tracking shot of Ryan Gosling as Handsome Luke, who does motorcycle stunts at a traveling carnival. It’s interesting to think about the shot after the film is over: He walks across an open lot into a tent, where people are cheering, and he puts on his motorcycle helmet. People think they’re in the midst of one story, but they’re often in something else.

Gosling, who also starred in “Blue Valentine,” holds a certain fascination as an actor, in that we believe in the actions of his characters, but we don’t know why they do them. Is he thoughtful and complex, or is he simple and instinctive? Is Luke weighing the moral consequences and operating according to an unspoken code, or is he just improvising?

His engaging smile suggests someone who knows more than we do, but perhaps we’re just getting taken in by good looks. Luke is somebody who makes people want to believe in him, including the viewer.

At the heart of “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a meditation on fathers and sons. Luke didn’t know his father, so when he finds out that he has an infant son by a Schenectady woman, Romina (Eva Mendes), he alters his plans so he can become a presence in the boy’s life. But Luke and Schenectady are an awkward match, at best.

His story is contrasted with that of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a licensed attorney who became a police officer in reaction to his father’s path as a judge and politician. Avery wants to live in a world of moral certitude, but when tested, finds himself living with lies like everybody else. Though in the eyes of the world he is a hero and Luke is pretty close to a bum, neither man is better than the other.

The difference between perception and reality is further emphasized by the character of Robin, a junk dealer and former bank robber played by Ben Mendelsohn, who is probably the kindest and most decent person in Schenectady.

The movie’s class commentary is inherent in the physical appearances of the characters. The passage of 15 years requires no alteration in the faces of Cooper and Rose Byrne, who plays his wife: They’re the upper-middle-class characters.

But the working-class Romina is made up to look much older, going from someone young and fresh to worn and middle-age in the blink of an eye. The movie’s final segment traces the fathers’ legacy to the next generation.

Though the segments are related, the story just seems to bounce from one event to the next, in ways that are unpredictable and unconventional.

Yet Cianfrance and his co-screenwriters make it all work by creating tension and interest in every scene, such that there is no point to feel safe jumping up to get popcorn.