The Place Beyond the Pines
(Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)
When the movie finished, I overheard various people saying, ‘I read that it’s not one movie but three and it’s true’. It’s not. But when I first saw it, I did think The Place Beyond the Pines was a movie of three sections that didn’t quite cohere; with the first part being as great as contemporary cinema gets; and the other two, whilst very good indeed, not quite living up to the extraordinary beauty and depth of feeling of the first; the Ryan Gosling section seemed like poetry, the other two simply suffered in comparison.
A subsequent viewing convinced me that I was mistaken: the film now seems to need the last two sections. The themes of broken families, absent fathers, residual racial tensions, freedom vs. responsibility, they’re set up in the first part but unfold throughout the movie in a way that deepens the exploration of its themes and adds intersecting ones — the privileges and abuses of class, the corruption of social institutions, what the sins of the fathers do to the sons. And it does this in interesting ways: that photograph from the beginning reappears in newly meaningful ways that nonetheless do not fully disclose the occasion it was taken to memorialize; that ice-cream offered so as to instill an imprint of love reappears but gets displaced onto another father-son relationship; those shades a baby grasps at in a photograph will be his father’s only legacy to him. The Place Beyond the Pines seems to grow and deepen the more we watch and think about it.
We hear the movie before we see it: a sigh? A steadying out-take of breath? That sounds sets the tone for the movie. It turns out to emanate from Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny daredevil, just before he rides into a ball-cage with two other bikers so that the crowds can gawp and thrill as the trio race inside the ball itself. The audience does too, not only because it does seem to be Ryan Gosling performing that stunt but because the whole extraordinary sequence is done in one marvelous sustained long take, a showstopper of a start and a shot that will establish a tone and style for the rest of the film: a searching, hand-held camera following the protagonists from behind before settling on a context, an action, a scene; our view, at least at the start always behind that of the protagonists, who know what they’re doing but not what they’re heading into: they know what their immediate actions will be, but are not necessarily aware of the repercussions of those actions.
The first section contains filmmaking as beautiful and moving as any I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling looks like a tattooed choirboy, a kind of fallen angel, the tear already inked in his face for all that he has suffered and all that he will sacrifice; the shape of the tear both a warning and a prayer (is it a dagger dropping blood or a crucifix?); his tattooed body, our first view of him, a history of the life he’s led (the Holy Bible tattooed on his hand), the life he expects (the struggle and fight conveyed by the two boxers tattooed on his biceps), the kind of attention he has gotten (heartthrob tattooed around his neck, the witty ‘hand’ which coupled with the questioning ‘some’ makes for a cheekily self-aware proclamation on the fingers of each hand) and a demand for the attention and the respect he seeks (which includes that of being an ‘outsider’). When Luke says to Romina (Eva Mendes),’don’t talk down to me’, you get the feeling that he speaks from a lifelong experience of being talked down to in just that way; and that he speaks not only for himself but for a whole sector of society if not for a whole class.
There are aspects of the movie that remain indelible: Gosling’s tears at his child’s baptism, and how he conveys the complete sadness of somebody who is not even worth being told he’s a father; the extraordinary beauty of Mendes in some shots; the two of them foregrounded against an out-of-focus but dreamily lit Ferris Wheel, an ideal of sub-prole romance; the sound of The Crying Shames’ ‘Don’t Go, Please Stay’ over a low-angle shot of Gosling riding into the night; the charge the film elicits when the stepfather, the actual parent of the child Gosling is allowed to father only biologically, is shown to be black (the camera holds back outside the door so as to theatrically reveal it) — that still signifies in American culture today, a frisson the film plays with when it deploys it again; though this time it’s Bradley Cooper’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) who conveys all kinds of demeaning assumptions through his sneer: his reaction is what the film expects the audience’s to be earlier on and which it now condemns in AJ.
In the first part, sequences are often linked by dissolves, as if the situation presented melts into its inevitable and pre-destined fate. There are other scenes where Gosling is kept in focus but everything else around him races past in a way that can’t be digested or gripped, headlong into uncontainable frustration and unavoidable destiny. Luke wants to do the right thing, provide for his girl and his kid, it’s his job to do so, he says, and he thinks it’s everyman’s right to get his own girl and kid if he wants them. But in the America Luke inhabits you can’t do your moral or ethical job if you have a minimum wage job like he does. So when Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) points him towards bank robbery, he doesn’t resist for long. In this film’s America, one’s got to go outside the law to claim one’s basic right to a family. Everything about the film, the lights of the Ferris Wheel, the way Gosling and Mendes look, the movement of the camera, the type of editing, help to convey this contrast between what society promises, the purity, beauty and modesty of the protagonist’s wants, and society’s inability to meet them. America is no longer a place which creates wants, meets them and convinces people they live in the best of all possible worlds. Or at least Luke and Ro don’t think so in The Place Beyond the Pines
The other two sections of the film are not only good but necessary: Avery, who appears in all three sections, is the film’s conscience and the core of the narrative. The second section, the central section of The Place Beyond the Pines, shift the focus from Ryan Gosling’s Luke and onto Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross. It is not merely a continuation but a comparison, a juxtaposition that uses rhyming but different scenarios to accrue meaning. Avery Cross, like Luke, is a young man who wants to do the right thing but one who’s got his wife and kid and a job that can support them. However, Avery is not just on the other side of the law, he’s kind of slumming as a cop: his father, he’s got one, one he thinks of as a kind of superhero, is a judge. Avery’s got an expensive education, a law degree, and his wants and expectations are not as modest as Luke’s. But unlike Luke, by the time the film starts to focus on his story we’ve already been shown how this fundamentally decent man is also a liar and a killer; and unlike Luke, when he gets into trouble he’s got a very solid support system, institutional, therapeutic, medical, familiar to advise; and when they can’t help, Avery’s got a father.
In a way, the film is about how America treats these very nice men who want to do the right thing but end up making a few mistakes. One ends up dead; the other, after initially becoming a prisoner of a situation he’s caused and can’t find his way out of (when he ends up in the evidence stock room Avery is shot against a steel blue background only a little darker than his eyes, completely enmeshed in bars and fencing,), is freed from it, if not his own guilt from it, by his father. Luke cried because he wasn’t deemed worthy of being a father; guilt-ridden Avery can’t stand the sight of his own son, and feels even more guilt. But liberal guilt is no barrier to Avery’s ambition: he sells out his colleagues, loses his family but rises to the top. The contrast is rendered more vivid by the casting. In the latter parts of the film, Bradley Cooper’s open face wonderfully evokes a well-fed idealism. Later we see guilt and disappointment that follows the inevitable corruption of his fight against it; and later still the masked smile, so familiar to us from TV coverage of politicians, as he urges us to ‘Cross Over into the Future’ with Avery Cross on his election night.
The last part of the film features their sons, two stoners from two different classes: one rich, one poor; one part of a contemporary multi-cultural family, the other a child of divorce; one with a loving stepfather, the other with a father who feels guilt everytime he sees him. When Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, takes Avery to that place beyond the pines, forces him on his knees, and is about to pull the trigger to avenge his father’s death, it is only Avery’s first threatening, begging, pleading to find out what happened to his son and then saying ‘I’m sorry’ for what he did to Jason’s father that saves him then and might yet save them both later.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful and poetic sighing for America, one that yearns for its ideal whilst mourning for its reality, that gap between what everyone wants it to be and what it has really become. When the film ends, AJ is right next to his father on an election platform, crossing right to his future on his father’s coattails; but the last shot begins with Jason, riding into his future off to the side of the frame into the unknown; and the camera stays focused on a tiny American flag, slightly out of focus, but smack-dead in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the pastoral barns, silos and landscape so familiar and so potent a symbol of an idea of America, one dear to cinema and indeed to filmgoers, and both like and unlike what the film has shown us. And then the first notes of Bon Iver’s ‘The Wolves (Act I and II) start and we hear the lyric ‘someday my pain, will mark you’ and the eyes lightly well up just as they did with Ryan Gosling in church and one thinks ‘This is a truly great movie’.