Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
An essential image in Derek Cianfrance’s latest film, The Place Beyond the Pines, is of roughened, local-star stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) sitting idly on his motorcycle at a traffic light intersection, looking up at the looming TrustCo Bank. It’s one of the few pauses during the film’s first hour, when Luke is often flashing like lightning across each scene. We’re not exactly privy to what’s running through Luke’s mind in that moment when he looks at the bank that he’s on the verge of robbing. Is he still wrestling with whether or not he wants to go through with the armed robbery? Is he considering the potential consequences? Or is he simply thinking through the steps of the thieving operation, hopeful as to what he might do with the money? No matter the thought that haunts him during this moment, what’s significant about the image–the pause–is that, as Luke sits at the intersection, pondering the decision he’s about to make, a trajectory of potential paths and consequences wait on the other side of the looming decision.
Yet, in this film, perhaps more important than Luke’s fateful decision itself are the circumstances which we’re presented with that shape our view of both that decision and its fallout. Back in Schenectady for a brief stop at a local fair as part of a traveling motorcycle stunt act, Luke discovers that his former one-night-stand lover, Romina (Eva Mendes), not only has a son, but that the infant boy is his. Romina is with another man, but that doesn’t stop Luke’s understandable desire to make a family with Romina and his son. Luke allows the traveling motorcycle stunt show to leave Schenectady without him, and what unfolds early in the film is the drama of Luke’s determination to not be the absent father that he had. The desire to be an available father is in itself good, but Luke is brought to the point where he thinks that bank-robbing is the only solution available to him if he is to be a good father and reverse the legacy that his father left for him.
And that’s the issue which, in part, makes Cianfrance’s directorial approach seem “heavy-handed”–a common criticism of the talented director after Blue Valentine. Pines persistently wants to press the idea that seemingly good intentions can still lead us to regrettable decisions. So when minimum wage isn’t cutting it in terms of trying to play provider for his son (though I think the film does well in meaning for us to ask questions about Luke’s conception of what constitutes being a good father), Luke’s decision to begin robbing banks is a solution that’s given too much weight as a kind of necessary evil. Which is to say, throughout the film I often wondered whether the circumstances created by its storytellers were given too much heft as inevitable tragic forces in the lives of its characters. Seemingly, Luke’s decision to rob banks isn’t merely made more understandable by the mention that he didn’t have an available father; rather, it’s what makes it understandable, period. The way that cause-and-effect works in the film sometimes seems like a blunt tool for carving out sympathy. Wrong is wrong in the film, I think, but I’m not sure that there’s enough sense of personal culpability in this story that’s so concerned with the sins passed down from the father to the son. More than that, perhaps, I’m not sure that there’s enough of a sense of freedom, or even enough of a subtle accounting for all of the circumstantial forces which affect us as persons. More succinctly: the line drawn from sinful father to troubled son seems too straight and narrow–not altered, or at least hindered, enough by potentially countervailing circumstances and influences.
And given that this is a film which spans from one generation to another, I’ve only provided a fraction of the basic plot. The buzz word among critics with this film is triptych–the Greek word for something composed in three parts or sections. Suffice it to say that Luke’s ruinous commitment to providing for his son leads him to a climactic encounter with young police officer, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper)–but it’s a climax that transitions into the second, connected phase of the story, which has its own sense of narrative arc. Namely, after this climactic encounter, Avery has trouble handling anxiety, corruption in the department, and the kind of guilt that stems from a secret kept. The film’s three interweaving sections are connected together by two fathers and their sons, about how they each handle responding to circumstances which are outside of their control, and how that response affects the outworking of the future and those who inherit it. Hovering over the film is this line of questioning: What kind of legacy do we want to pursue, and more than that, how will the means by which we pursue it affect the outcome?
Given this focus on legacy and sins that reach from one generation to another, what strikes me about Cianfrance’s film is not simply its sense of place, but also how it follows along with its characters’ navigating perspective, and how their choices in space (re: place and time) progress into the future. This approach gives shape to an aesthetic that’s often spellbinding, keeping me riveted in spite of the film’s intermittent heavy-handedness. Primarily, Cianfrance often uses long tracking shots which work either to establish an escalating sense of atmospheric doom, or to mirror the long view he’s taking in this epic–or both. And these two elements are often further facilitated by repetitions in the film. Some of the recurrences are a bit too symbol-laden, but others, like Luke’s grown teenage son Jason (Dane DeHaan) riding his bicycle along a winding road dimmed by parallel rows of trees along each side (with “The Snow Angel” looming over it all), are strangely affecting in spite of their obviousness. Though I’m sure there are others, if there’s one revelation that feels natural in this film it’s how profoundly the father shapes the son even if he’s not around, and not solely in a way that’s limited to the fact of his not being around. Put more specifically: Luke’s identity is to his son a secret that, as such, profoundly haunts and hurts him, but the effects of which are palpable because they’re inescapable.
I’m sure much of the focus will be on Gosling’s fine performance, and that’s understandable because I think the first section of the story–where he is most prominent–is also probably the strongest in a film that descends in terms of quality. Yet, I most admired Cooper’s performance as the troubled rookie police officer; in fact, it’s probably my favorite Cooper performance to date. He captures a sense of inner turmoil and guilt without any sense of over-emoting. It’s an understated, brooding performance that parallels Gosling’s well in the right way: Gosling’s guilt is a secret that others must keep for him after he’s gone because he wore his sins on his sleeve. But Cooper’s character requires the kind of secret shame that a perceived hero might keep. The latter performance is vital because it punctuates a theme that’s meant to be essentially human in such a way that transcends appearances to the contrary. Fathers who are physically present can still be effectively absent–can still be leaving a grim legacy. The young actors playing the kids do the best they can in the third section of the film, but they can’t quite carry the weight of Cianfrance’s most overbearing plot maneuver.
Cianfrance tracks along with these characters on paths that are at times too contrived, but his focus on fathers and sons is so intensely affirmative in that when this bond is broken by guilt-induced secrets, the fallout works to illuminate the baseline reality and importance of these essential relationships. For much ofPines–particularly the third section–I was mixed, too self-aware of the director’s hand in borderline pretentious ways, even as I found much to admire. I’m the kind of person who appreciates an ambitious film with a novelistic grandiosity, even while I recognize its potential pitfalls. Much of my problem here is that the narrative often left me feeling like I couldn’t breathe–to the point that I was almost sure where the film would take me by the end. Yet, thankfully, Cianfrance had a surprise in store–a moment that I won’t spoil–that has my admiration of the film overwhelming my qualms in the long run. It’s a moment that genuinely surprised me, because, in lieu of what precedes, it’s a moment of freedom, of sorrow, of maybe even a hint of forgiveness–of the possibility that our legacies might change trajectory in a single moment because they are not inescapably defined by any single moment.