An infinite circle of fatherhood and wrongdoing, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines is a cinematic triptych of masculinity in crisis.
Fairground Attraction by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If Blue Valentine was a very musical remix of Tom Waits’s album of the same name and The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go?, Derek Cianfrance’s third feature is altogether more cinematic, drawing his inspiration from the tripartite structure of Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the baton-relaying narrative of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And in some ways, The Place Beyond The Pines is more cerebral than the emotional wrangling of Blue Valentine‘s tale of falling in love and D-I-V-O-R-C-E. But with Ryan Gosling as the film’s poster boy, The Place Beyond The Pines capitalises on his bad-boy stunt-driver image, hyper-veneered in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, to create a thought-provoking triptych of love, ambition and fatherhood.
Illuminated against the neon landscape of the fairground, daredevil motorbike stuntrider ‘Handsome Luke’ meets skimpily clad admirer Romina. One year later, the funfair’s back in Schenectady, upstate New York, and Luke hooks up with Romina again, only to find her looking after his baby and married. But not one to leave his family in the lurch, Luke jacks in the fair. And after storming through the woods on his dirtbike, finds a friend (in ex-con Robin), a job (as a mechanic) and a home (in Robin’s backyard trailer). Keen to take care of his family and win Romina away from her husband’s providing arms, the “Hall & Oates” duo soon take to robbing banks utilising Luke’s skillset to its fullest – scrambling his black-painted chopper into a waiting pick-up truck. It’s charmingly anti-macho – Luke vomiting after the successful first heist. But if you ride like lightning, you end up crashing like thunder. And when Robin deserts him and his hare-brained schemes of jumping two banks in one day, Luke finds himself on the run, out of luck and backed into a corner by policeman Avery.
As Luke fades out in an expanding pool of blood, we follow Avery, our second hero in crisis, similarly shot from behind with a camera reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Luke shoots Avery, Avery shoots Luke. And Avery’s not too concerned about the lawfulness of the shooting, happily asserting Luke shot at him first for the sake of his career. But the bluecoat is still haunted by the burden of killing and the child whose father he took away. Avery’s own descent into the moral underworld comes as colleagues descend on his house during his sick leave to stage some unofficial police business, stealing Luke’s stolen loot hidden in Romina’s baby’s cot. But reassigned to the evidence room, Avery’s coerced into helping out his on-the-up and low-down colleagues with requisitioned coke. Until seizing his chance, ambitious Avery finks on his friends and bargains for a promotion to Assistant DA. Keen to live up to his father’s expectations, Avery has his own moment beyond the pines, where he too decides on the wrong path. Both of their decisive moments come when they’re deep in the woods, Luke choosing to try his luck as a bank-robber while Avery opts for a legal but unsavoury betrayal.
Inspired by his own experiences as a father, Cianfrance’s characters are both fathers, acutely aware of their paternal duties. Luke gives up his freewheeling life of liberty to become a providing (if not exactly responsible) father, while Avery, on the other side of the poverty line, connects to his bullet’s victim through shared fatherhood. Avery, in the evidence room, puts himself almost literally in Luke’s shoes – wearing his bag, returning his money and as it turns out, keeping his family photo. And this infernal battle between the two families, the blue-collar crook and the white-collar lawman, turns full circle as, fifteen years later, sons Jason and AJ meet. They too tussle in the existential ether, struggling between friendship and the hand of fate. But it’s Luke’s son Jason who becomes the third man in the trilogy, completing the circle by taking Avery’s money to buy a dirt bike, and riding off into the distance to make his fortune on the road like his pa. For Jason, his moment beyond the pines doesn’t result in a fall into criminality, although he does steal pills from a drugstore, shoot AJ and abduct Avery at gunpoint. Instead, it’s his decision not to shoot his father’s killer and not to perpetuate the cycle of violence, but to honour his dead father by cherishing his photo and following in his tracks.
Almost the entire story behind The Place Beyond The Pines is summed up in its opening sequence, as shirtless, tattooed carny ‘Handsome Luke’ inhales deeply, preparing for his grand entrance in the Cage of Death. Ryan Gosling, bleach blond and fetishised with his teardrop and ‘Heartthrob’ inks, leads us into a daredevil realm of danger – of three men going round in circles. And despite his trailer-trash aesthetic, his unlaundered look of inside-out and over-sized T-shirts, without its leading man The Place Beyond The Pines falters. Like Hitchcock’s Marion Crane, Luke’s death is mourned by the viewer’s sense of loss, and it’s a crunching gear-change each time the story changes protagonist. Cianfrance’s circular narrative is almost too convenient and too carefully scripted for an explosive story about love, fatherhood and violence, its coda simply serving to honour the put-upon hero struggling to do his best by his family. The Place Beyond The Pines isn’t as emotionally visceral as Blue Valentine, aiming at the head more than the heart. But while the script veers between breakneck and leisurely, Derek Cianfrance’s film is nevertheless a cinematic rollercoaster of clever ascents and high-octane loops.
The Place Beyond The Pines is released on 12th April 2013