The image of a bike recurs throughout The Place Beyond The Pines, a sprawling yet intimate, decade-spanning triptych of crime and punishment, choice and consequence, and how the sins of the father must eventually come to bear on the son. A shot of three stunt motorcycle stuntmen racing inside a sphere, the camera zooming in on the riders until they’re one indistinct blur, could be read as a visual metaphor for how easy it is to become yet another faceless, replaceable cog in the machine. The frenzy of a bank robber’s escape as he zips through traffic becomes a short window of insight into his barely suppressed inner turmoil. A bike gliding out of frame at the end of the film represents the hard-won freedom of a new life.
Most of all, this motif comes to illustrate how tough it can be to ultimately escape from cycles of pain and violence, how misguided attempts to speed ahead only set someone on the road to ruin, and how the compulsion to ride like the wind is inextricable from the fear that you’re getting nowhere.
The question of what it means to be a man has girded the works of Derek Cianfrance and Darius Marder, whose films examine the construct of masculinity through characters who struggle to live up to a self-imposed definition of it. Their collaborations, The Place Beyond The Pines (which Cianfrance directed and co-wrote with Marder), and Sound of Metal (which Marder directed and Cianfrance has a story co-credit on), feature men simultaneously driven by the need to care for their partners, and hobbled by their financial inability to. Both Riz Ahmed’s Ruben Stone and Ryan Gosling’s Luke Glanton are caught between the crushing weight of their perceived inadequacy and the yearning to rise above it, to do and be better for the people they care about.
Both films open with their protagonists preparing for a showcase of their talents. But while Sound of Metal places us inside Ruben’s head by letting us see the anticipation on his face in the buildup to a concert, The Place Beyond The Pines begins with carnival stunt rider Luke’s head out of frame. Only his bare torso and tattoos are on display as the metallic flicking of a switchblade inside his trailer contrasts against the cheery sounds of the fair outside.
As he cuts his way through a swathe of people, his back is to the camera. This minimization of his identity continues as he finds himself edged out of his son’s life — rather than tell him about the child he fathered the last time the last time he was in town, his partner Romina Gutierrez (Eva Mendes) has settled down with another man, Kofi Kancam (Mahershala Ali), whose finances make him a much more stable prospect.
Cianfrance’s empathetic lens doesn’t judge Romina for her choices; it’s clear that her heart and head are at odds with each other and in the meantime, Luke can only watch helplessly from afar as Kofi is able to give his son the kind of life that he can’t. This self-doubt creeps into his soul — when Romina asks if he wants to hold his son for the first time, he rubs his hands together first, as if to not only scrub off their grime, but wholly transform himself into someone deserving of cradling a child. In a later scene, Luke follows Romina and Kofi into church and discovers that they’re baptizing his son without having informed him first or even inviting him to be a part of the ritual. As he watches another man take his place at a pivotal part of his child’s upbringing, he can only weep in humiliation.
For someone who just wants to be seen and acknowledged, however, Luke’s only option is to take to a profession that requires him to be anonymous — bank robbery. In this way, The Place Beyond The Pines considers who gets to be seen and heard, spotlighted or forgotten. During a getaway attempt, Luke is ultimately killed by policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), whose actions bring him fame and news coverage. As Avery takes on a more public profile, he continues to remain privately haunted by his past misdeeds. In contrast to Luke, Cianfrance frames him through tight closeups — this is a man for whom the spotlight has now begun to resemble the uncomfortable glare of a microscope.
Through the contrasting trajectories of Luke and Avery — one dies villainized by the media, the other becomes a local hero — the film builds up the similarities between them. Like Luke, Avery’s ambitions exceed his reach, which pushes him to devise an alternate path to them; in his case, leveraging the police force’s shameful secrets to catapult himself to the position of assistant district attorney. Like Luke, he falls short of providing his son with an ideal upbringing. Despite the differences in where they’ve come from and all the ways their paths have diverged, their children end up in the same place, as if all part of some ill-fated grand design or Greek tragedy.
Cianfrance isn’t interested in pithy moral lessons about how crime doesn’t pay or how shortcuts often lead straight to dead ends. For all its propulsive energy, the film finds poignancy in its quieter moments — in a woman whose face crumples in despair when the momentary fantasy of a new life is by crushed by the reality of her current situation, in strangers who share a look of mutual respect while racing alongside each other in the woods, in the bowed head of a penitent man whose sins have finally caught up with him. It takes on systemic and institutional rot, but stays focused on the lives of these men, asking us to think about what we’d do for the people we love, how our actions might shape those who come after us, and how we’d like to be remembered.
Published 18 Apr 2023
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