A circus story always roams the territory of myth. Its citizens exist outside society – parallel, parasitic, exceeding limitations even as they occupy less than exalted territory. It’s an occupation for people who have both lesser and greater skills than those needed to negotiate everyday experience. Its performers occupy the space of gods and ghosts.
In Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is such a totemic figure. The picture’s first chapter giddily tracks its exalted subject in the heady ramp-up to a death-defying performance. Cianfrance begins Pines with a bravura uninterrupted take, trailing Luke as he moves through a carnival and into a circus tent, sits astride his motorcycle and launches into a cramped metal globe with two other stunt riders. The actor, introduced as a body and not as a face, becomes metaphor. And the encompassing camera establishes Cianfrance’s scale for the dramatic action: here is a man, here is the garish stage where he lives as a hero.
As an actor, Ryan Gosling exists between two poles: between less than and more than, between humility and vengeance, between tenderness and violence. For his audience, he is both the ardent Romeo in The Notebook and the acme of brutality in Drive. Maybe it is a question of physicality, the plaintive cast of his mouth and eyes, the imperfect quirk of his nose, but an air of gentleness trails Gosling even as he transfigures into such an intensely toxic persona as Luke. The actor’s proliferating internet memes find their basis in the strange impossibility that unites politicians, musical front men, and movie stars—in Gosling’s sincerity and specificity—the feeling that a message is being conveyed very specifically to you.
Eva Mendes’ Romina is victim to these devilish contradictions. When she finds Luke after his performance, Romina says she wants only to see him, but her humble claim conveys everything: their fraught past, her longing and her ambivalence, his carelessness that brings pain while masking vulnerability, the awakening their union also brings to him.
From the start, Romina is a girl cut in two, easily falling into poisonous rapport with her baby’s disappeared father. She loves and respects Kofi, the dutiful man who gives her shelter, but Luke is the guy who gets her, who elicits the most precarious emotions. Tears spill when she’s with him; they’re provoked by joy and by an unease foreshadowing doom – a glorious condition, if its effects weren’t so shattering.
Director Cianfrance telegraphs intensely specific feelings in his films. His first feature, Blue Valentine, depicts the tender spring of young love cheek by jowl with that attachment’s painful winter, as a couple played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams is divided by the differences that maturity discloses. As in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play that charts the unspooling of a relationship in reverse, Blue Valentine’s chronology suggests that endings are often implicit in beginnings, and that supremely optimistic gestures of love can be underpinned by weak and destructive impulses. If Blue Valentine is an elegy for a couple’s prospects, Cianfrance’s second effort, The Place Beyond The Pines, offers cautious hope for an individual’s chances.
When Luke learns that the young waitress Romina gave birth to their child, he finds a sudden spine for his life. Luke now must navigate the more crushing challenges of ordinariness. “Each man has a particular skill set,” Luke’s adoptive friend Robin tells him as he prompts him to a life of crime. Robin has the nervous, dilated eyes of any man living too long on the fringes of society. Like boys, these inchoate men befriend each other when they steeplechase their motorbikes through the woods.
Years before, Robin had been a bank robber—and this access to easy cash, along with its risky thrills, propels Luke to knock over banks for Romina and their infant son. The dangers of his new vocation are manifest. Perhaps most central to The Place Beyond The Pines is the feeling of compulsion: that each man falls neatly into a dilemma that will undo him. “If you’re going to ride like lightning you’re gonna crash like thunder,” Robin warns Luke.
The Place Beyond The Pines is curiously timeless – the fashions and small town attitudes reflect the town’s backwater status. The story begins in the early 90s, where Mendes’ mom-waisted cutoffs and Gosling’s bleached hair, metal band t-shirts and peg-legged pants may have been current. While anchored in a setting (“the place beyond the pines” is the translation of the Indian name, Schenectady), the story is not particularly about an era or a working class town, but about how chronology works within a provincial place, about the casual and causal links between characters who barely meet before their lives spark together like deadly live wires.
The triptych drama unfolds over fifteen years through a nimble dovetail of events—the careless circus daredevil turns responsible criminal and dies at the hands of an Oedipal cop; the rookie law enforcer becomes an ambivalent hero whose antipathy to his own son seems to engender the ruthless bully we meet in the movie’s final confrontation. You could say that the film is about the crimes of fathers revisited upon sons, but that suggests a more deterministic story thanPines resolves to be.
We meet Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross as a new cop grappling with a challenge that exceeds his extremely narrow experience—the rookie pursues an armed bank robber into a suburban house. Cross is wounded in the encounter, and afterwards finds himself at the center of a hero’s celebration, an internal affairs investigation, and his own debate. Did he follow correct procedures? Was he justified in changing the course of several lives? For his own survival, Avery must create a single, unambiguous story and sell it.
In Luke’s last scenes, it’s unclear if he is waiting for death or for jail, but he implores Romina, “Do not tell our son about me.” Romina is faithful to his request, but Luke’s presence haunts the balance of the movie. Children carry on unspoken inheritances from their parents. Intuitively, the teenaged sons inPines liberate their repressed family histories. Avery Cross, Junior (Emory Cohen), is a cherub-lipped brute, free of sensitivity, doubt, self-reflection or awareness. His unswerving impulse is destruction, and when his stewardship is passed to his politician father, Avery Jr. locks onto Jason, a loner stoner at his new school, as the target of his elemental attention. The two teens are arrested for buying drugs, and Avery Senior discovers Jason’s true identity. This bruised youth is the baby he made an orphan, from the kill upon which he based a career.
Any story about redemption is a fable. When the terrifically fragile Jason (Dane DeHaan) discovers his dad’s identity, he carries out an orphan’s fantasy by attempting to reclaim his unknown heritage. He follows his real dad’s example and embarks on a motorbike journey, destination unknown. In spite of Luke’s life’s outcome, Jason’s beginning is still hopeful. Pines demonstrates that men’s lives are shaped by the unpredictable alchemy of individual character and chance encounters. We hope that Jason, with his double inheritance of decency and agency, of ordinary and mythical, has better luck than his parents.