At a carnival in Schenectady, New York, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) receives word that it’s time for another performance. He strides through the fairgrounds until he reaches a tent filled with cheering people. Luke straddles his waiting motorcycle and, along with his sidekicks, drives into a giant metal-grated ball. The men rev their engines and perform a series of daredevil stunts.
After the show, Luke sees his old flame Romina (Eva Mendes) emerge from the crowd. He hasn’t seen her in over a year, since his carnival last came to Schenectady. He offers her a ride home on his bike. Before she goes in her house, Luke asks Romina if she wants to grab a beer. He will leave the night after tomorrow and will not return for a long time. Romina shakes her head and lets Luke know she has a boyfriend. The next day Luke returns to Romina’s home, and her elderly mother answers the door holding a baby. Romina’s mom tells Luke the baby is his, and she lets him hold the boy, who is named Jason. Later, Luke finds Romina at the diner where she works and confronts her about keeping Jason a secret from him. Romina tearfully tells he rode off a year ago and never called her, so now she is doing what she has to in order to support herself and her son. Luke wants a relationship with Jason, but Romina isn’t sure that’s a good idea, especially since he plans to leave town the next day.
Luke quits his carnival job and goes back to Romina’s house to tell her the news. He meets Romina’s boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who actually owns the house and who, for all intents and purposes, has assumed the role of Jason’s father. Romina and Kofi tell Luke to leave as they are on their way to Jason’s baptism. Luke follows them to the church and sits in the back. Later, he drives by Romina and Kofi’s house and watches them playing with Jason. He obviously wants to be a father to Jason, but he doesn’t know how.
While racing through the woods outside of Schenectady, Luke encounters a man riding on an ATV. The men glance at each other as they rocket through the forest. After his ride, Luke sees the man loading his ATV onto a trailer. The man offers Luke a ride back into town and introduces himself as Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a local mechanic. Robin takes a liking to Luke and not only gives him a job in his auto repair shop but also lets him move into his spare trailer. Luke continues to try to develop a relationship with Romina and Jason. Romina points out that Luke can barely support himself, much less her and a baby and her mom. She wants to stay with Kofi. Luke asks Robin for more work, but Robin doesn’t have the money to pay him any more. Robin tells Luke that if he wants to earn more money, he needs to focus on his skillset: motorcycle riding and stunts. He could always rob banks. At first, Luke thinks Robin is joking, but the latter tells him that he used to rob banks until the police scrutiny became too much to handle. As long as Luke stops after robbing a few banks, it’s unlikely he will be caught.
Over the following week, the men plan the robbery together. They visit a bank, and Robin tells Luke to either choose the eldest female teller or the meekest teller. Luke will speed away from the bank after the robbery and drive into the back of Robin’s cube truck, which will be parked a few blocks away. Robin gives Luke a gun, too, although he did not use one when he robbed banks.
The first robbery goes off seamlessly. After some initial trepidation, Luke bursts into the bank and screams at everyone to get on his or her knees. He commands the bank tellers to stuff the money from their registers into a grimy backpack and then sprints from the bank to his motorcycle. He speeds down the street and reaches the cube truck shortly before police cars with blaring sirens roll past him and Robin. Robin drives away from the bank and hoots over their victory while Luke throws up in the back. That night, the men dance and laugh in Robin’s trailer.
Romina exits the diner and sees Luke leaning against his bike. She temporarily warms to him, and the next scene shows her and Luke in bed together. They talk about Jason, and Luke asks if he can give Jason ice cream for the first time, so he can do something for the first time with his son. Romina agrees, and they spend a sweet afternoon together with their son. Luke buys a disposable camera, and he poses with Romina, Jason, and his bike. A stranger takes their picture, and when Romina starts to cry, Luke covers her face, so the camera only captures her smile.
Luke robs another bank. He uses the money to buy Jason a crib and a bunch of presents. He tries to install the crib in Kofi’s home Romina’s mother lets him in but when Romina and Kofi come home, they tell Luke to leave. Jason begins to wail, and Romina takes him from the room. Kofi repeats that Luke needs to leave, but Luke continues building the crib. Without much provocation, Luke stands up and hits Kofi in the face with a wrench. He goes to jail, and after he posts bail, he tells Robin he wants to rob two banks in one day. Robin backs out of their partnership, because he thinks Luke’s erratic behavior will get them caught. He does lend Luke his car Luke gives Romina a bundle of his stolen money for Jason, but she promises he will never see his son again and while Luke is out, he saws apart his bike. When Luke discovers his ruined motorcycle, he pulls a gun on Robin and forces him to give him cash for a new motorcycle.
Standing outside of a bank, Luke realizes he has forgotten his sunglasses, which hide a distinctive tattoo near his eyes. He proceeds with the robbery, and as more things go wrong, he becomes more unhinged. A police car reaches the bank before he can make a clean getaway, and the officer pursues him as he races through neighborhoods. Luke temporarily manages to lose the officer, but Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie officer driving another squad car, quickly spots him. Luke’s motorcycle wipes out, and he runs into a nearby home, taking its terrified residents hostage. Avery calls for backup. Upstairs, Luke lets his hostages go, and he locks himself in a bedroom. He calls Romina and begs her to never tell Jason about him. Avery enters the house, and he hears Luke upstairs. He announces himself before bursting into the room. Both he and Luke have guns drawn, and both men fire. Avery’s shot hits Luke in the chest, and Luke falls out of a nearby window. Luke’s shot hits Avery in the leg. When Avery crawls to the window, he looks down and sees Luke’s dead body.
Avery awakens in a hospital. He sees his wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) holding their one-year-old son AJ as well as his father Al (Harris Yulin). They both commend his heroism. Shortly thereafter, Chief Weirzbowski (Robert Clohessy) and District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood) visit Avery in the hospital. Weirzbowski also thinks Avery is a hero, but Killcullen wants to interview Avery about the shooting. He asks Avery who shot first, and Avery takes offense to Killcullen’s questions.
A news report shows Avery leaving the hospital. The reporter mentions that Al is a judge and that Avery went to law school before joining the police force a few months ago. Now back at home, Avery limps around the house and awaits his return to active duty. He learns that Luke also had a young son, and this realization increases his discomfort around AJ. Jennifer and Al both want Avery to leave the police force and become a lawyer, but he doesn’t want to be calculating and political, like Al.
One night a group of officers come to Avery’s house to wish him well. Jennifer invites Scott (Gabe Fazio), Deluca (Ray Liotta), and Doc Crowley (Luca Pierucci) to join them for dinner. During dinner, Deluca asks if they can borrow Avery and take him to meet another group of cops, who all want to shake the hero’s hand. Avery decides to go with them. Much to his surprise, Crowley drives not to a bar but to Kofi and Romina’s house. Deluca knocks on the door and tells Romina that they want to search her home for the money Luke stole. Although they lack a warrant, a threatening reference regarding Romina’s mom’s immigration papers convinces Romina to let them inside. Avery, clearly uncomfortable in Romina’s presence, follows Scott upstairs and watches in shock as the latter uncovers Luke’s bundle of cash in Jason’s crib. Avery protests, but Scott gets him to calm down. The men go downstairs and tell Deluca they found nothing. Back in the car, Deluca gives Avery half of the stolen $14,000. He calls it hazard pay. When Avery gets back to his house, he hides the cash in the garage, but Jennifer sees him.
Eventually, Avery returns to work. He tells Weirzbowski he wants a promotion and that he wants to reorganize the department; the implication is that he wants to weed out crooked cops like Deluca. Weirzbowski informs Avery that, despite his hero status, he can only return to work at his current rank. Because Avery does not want to return to a squad car, he becomes the evidence room manager. Scott, who has been promoted to Vice and now works alongside Deluca, learns of Avery’s new placement and invites him to lunch. Scott explains that he and Deluca need some cocaine from the evidence room so they can pay off a hooker. They took care of Avery by giving him $7,000, so now Avery needs to take care of them. Avery goes to the locker room and looks in the evidence box about Luke Glanton’s robberies and death. He finds the picture of Luke, Romina, and Jason in Luke’s backpack and is moved by the family tableau.
Avery decides to come clean and takes the stolen money to Weirzbowski. He tries to tell Weirzbowski about Scott and Deluca’s corruption, but Weirzbowski yells at him to shut up and get out. Weirzbowski would rather ignore the corruption in his own department than “rat out” his officers. Later, Avery sees Weirzbowski talking to Deluca, and both men stare menacingly at him. Avery climbs into his car, but Deluca stops him from driving away. Deluca asks Avery to follow him so they can talk about the cocaine he and Scott need. Avery follows Deluca as he drives deep into the forest, but when Deluca stops the car and climbs out, he gets scared and drives away. Finally, Avery goes to his father for help, and Al tells Avery he won’t like what he has to do.
Avery finds Scott and tells him he will steal the cocaine for him. Scott tells him what to do and what to say when someone notices the cocaine has gone missing. Avery then visits Killcullen and replays a recording of the conversation to the district attorney. Avery will testify against Scott and Deluca if Killcullen will offer him full immunity and make him an assistant district attorney. Killcullen despises Avery for his entitlement, but he agrees to the deal. Scott and Deluca go to jail, and Avery’s reputation becomes even more sterling because of his part in the police corruption trial.
Fifteen years later, Avery, Jennifer, and AJ (Emory Cohen) attend Al’s funeral. During his eulogy, Avery references his current run for attorney general. After the service, Jennifer pulls Avery aside and tells him AJ now wants to move in with him. Jennifer and Avery have divorced, and Jennifer thinks that if AJ doesn’t live with his father, he will “go off the rails.” The last thing Avery wants is his teenage son to move in with him while he works on his campaign, but he eventually agrees.
On AJ’s first day of school, he meets with a guidance counselor and reveals his ambivalence about school and living with his dad. AJ mannerisms and speech imply he thinks he’s some kind of gangster. At lunch, he sits down next to a grungy looking guy (Dane DeHaan) and strikes up a conversation about how much Schenectady bores him. He and the grungy guy decide to cut class and smoke weed in the park. AJ asks if the grungy guy has always lived in Schenectady and if his parents are still together. The grungy guy tells AJ his parents are together but that his dad isn’t his biological dad; his biological dad died in a car accident when he was a baby. AJ asks if the grungy guy knows where to score Ecstasy, so the pair pay a visit to the grungy guy’s dealer. Shortly after leaving the dealer’s home, a police car pulls up behind the boys, and an officer arrests them both.
Avery arrives at the Schenectady police station, where the officer in charge tells him that they can keep the incident quiet, so it does not damage his campaign. Avery asks for the grungy guy’s name, and the officer answers, “Jason Glanton.” Avery startles when he realizes his son and Luke’s son were arrested together, and when he collects AJ that night, he makes AJ swear that he will never talk to Jason again.
The next day Jason stands in a courtroom as the judge reads the charges against him. Romina and Kofi stand behind Jason, Romina crying. Jason’s public defender tells the judge that the prosecutor wants to offer Jason a plea deal and resolve the case that day. In private, she informs Jason, Kofi, and Romina that the prosecutor will reduce Jason’s crime to a misdemeanor, give him time served, and make him pay a fee. Essentially, Jason can go home with Romina and Kofi. All of them are relieved.
Later, AJ finds Jason in the locker room. AJ saw Kofi bring Jason to school and makes snide comments about how Kofi. Jason storms away, but that night at dinner he asks him mom about his real father. Romina won’t discuss Luke. When Kofi and Jason go out for ice cream, Kofi tells Jason that he is his real father. Jason just wants to know who his biological was, so Kofi gives him Luke’s name. Jason goes online and finds an article about Luke’s bank robberies. The article mentions Robin’s auto body shop, so Jason rides his bike to pay Robin a visit.
Robin tells Jason about Luke’s wildness and outlaw deeds. He shows Jason an article with Luke’s mugshot and Avery’s picture in it, although Robin doesn’t know what happened to Avery. When Jason finds Luke’s glasses, the ones he forgot on the day of his ill-fated last robbery, Robin gives them to him.
At school, AJ corners Jason and accuses the other of losing his money, because they were arrested after Jason helped AJ buy drugs. AJ tells Jason he can make the loss up to him by bringing Oxycontin to a party that AJ is throwing at his dad’s house that night. He taunts Jason, but Jason still complies. He sneaks out of his house and then sneaks behind the counter of a pharmacy to steal a bottle of Oxycontin. The pharmacist catches him and gives chase, but Jason hops on his bike and makes it to AJ’s house, where the party is in full swing. AJ gladly accepts the pills, and everyone takes a few. Later Jason makes out with a girl, but when she tries to take him upstairs to a bedroom, he sees a picture of Avery and realizes that AJ’s father shot his own. Jason races downstairs and confronts AJ, but AJ knows nothing about Luke Glanton, and he attacks Jason. Partygoers pull AJ off of Jason, but Jason still ends up in the hospital.
Romina and Kofi tend to Jason until his release. After Jason’s discharge, Romina tells him to wait for her while she goes and gets the car. When his mother is out of sight, Jason leaves the hospital and goes to his dealer to get a gun. The next morning he breaks into AJ and Avery’s home and draws his new gun on AJ, who just climbed out of the shower. Avery arrives home after a campaign trip, and the scene cuts to Jason, who is standing over AJ’s prone body. Jason stops Avery as he comes up the stairs and tells him to turn around. He forces Avery to drive deep into the woods, and then he makes Avery climb out of the car and get on his knees. Avery begs to know what has happened to AJ, but Jason won’t tell him. Avery catches Jason off guard when he addresses him by name and apologizes to Jason. Jason forces Avery to give him his keys and his wallet, and then he runs through the woods towards Avery’s car. He opens the wallet and is stunned when he finds, along with several hundred dollars, the picture of his mom, his dad, and him, which Avery has kept all these years.
A news report describes Avery’s victory in his run for attorney general. The reporter adds that a few months before, an unnamed and as yet uncaught assailant broke into Avery’s home, gave his son a concussion, and temporarily kidnapped Avery. Jason only hit AJ in the head, and AJ joins his father onstage as he gives his victory speech.
Romina receives an envelope from Jason. It contains only the picture of her, Luke, and Jason. She sits on her steps and cries.
Jason knocks on the door of a farmhouse. He has come to see the farmer’s motorcycle, which is for sale. He decides to buy the bike, and the farmer asks if he has ridden before. In response, Jason climbs on the motorcycle, starts the engine, and drives away.
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