“He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide.”
—Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
Blue Valentine writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s latest film The Place Beyond the Pines is, if anything, a study in what Robert Penn Warren, legendary 1940s author of All the King’s Men, calls “the awful responsibility of Time.” We begin with Ryan Gosling’s character Luke Glanton, a reckless circus-performing motorcyclist. Seemingly out of nowhere, Luke has great responsibility thrust upon him when an old flame from an upstate New York carnival stop steps back into his life with his infant son.
Suddenly, Luke’s life precludes his egocentricity: he now has a family he must provide for. In a turn of either fate or chance, he meets a local auto repairman who offers him a job and a place to stay. When the pay is not enough, Luke’s new friend suggests robbing banks in order to provide for his son. Luke’s path soon becomes dangerously intertwined with Avery Cross’s, a young, ambitious police officer played by Bradley Cooper. What follows is a tour-de-force of moral ambiguity, emotional strife, and rippling responsibility. The film explores the nature of individual actions and the effects they have on those in a person’s life, both in the present and in the future.
The Place Beyond the Pines subscribes all too well to Robert Penn Warren’s spider web theory of the world. Through the course of the story, the audience watches how an individual, whether aware of it or not, leaves a resounding influence on the people around him and even on those who come after him. No one can possibly act in a vacuum, and Cianfrance’s film illustrates this phenomenon painfully and beautifully. The audience watches as what starts as a heart-pounding crime thriller morphs into a deeply tragic study of the interconnectedness of human life. Cianfrance makes his lesson perfectly clear through stellar acting and seamless cinematic storytelling.
Though Gosling and Cooper’s characters initially seem like opposites and even enemies, they turn out to leave similar and lasting impacts on those in their lives. These are two incredible performances by each actor, ones which I hope get recognized come next award season. Luke and Avery only appear on screen together for no more than a couple minutes, but their stories are intertwined far beyond the on-screen interaction. Each character has a young son. Each man is trying to provide for his family in one way or another. I’ll be careful not to drop any spoilers, but the crucial scene when outlaw and policeman first meet is an excellent example of the stellar acting on display. Gosling’s Luke, on the run from the police and holed up in a stranger’s house, is desperately seeking an escape as Cooper’s Avery is in his first hot pursuit as a young cop, nervously following this dangerous criminal to the brink. The latent intensity is palpable.
There is no clear answer in this film regarding which character goes about his work properly. Perhaps neither of them does. The subtlety of the acting allows for great moral complexity, leaving the viewer torn helplessly between these two tragic figures. If there is one thing that is clear, however, it is that each character’s actions reach far beyond himself. As the film goes on, the story winds its way through multiple generations, and the audience watches the story unfold, revealing the lasting ripples of the past that deeply affect even the most unlikely characters many years into the future. It is a deeply telling, immensely stirring look at how no one is alone in their decisions, especially those with family, who will inevitably carry on the legacy of those decisions.
When I initially sat down to write this review, I first tried my best to leave my emotions out of the discussion and approach the matter from a pure critic’s eye. After all, The Place Beyond the Pines is not a perfect film. The writing is at times clunky and the cinematography only has brief glimpses of scenic inspiration. But I realized that to leave my emotions untouched would be to do this film an injustice.
Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance gets every drop of acting out of his cast in order to make his story as genuinely human as possible. It cannot be helped then that a film that derives its power from human interaction touches so heavily upon human feelings and emotions. To put it simply, The Place Beyond the Pines makes you feel.
The reality of the tragedy that unfolds over the course of two and a half hours is all too compelling to be ignored. I felt the danger of Luke Glanton’s sacrifice for his young son in his moment of panic when the police are fast approaching. I felt the extreme discomfort of Avery Cross’s shady cop dealings. And I watched with pangs of regret and sorrow as these actions rippled into the future and unfolded in each character’s life and in the lives of those around them. I can only imagine how hard it would be for a father with a young child to watch this movie. Its all too real lesson on the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions stuck with me long after I left the theater.
What is uplifting about The Place Beyond the Pines is its final revelation: there is always a chance at redemption. The title of the film refers to the untouched forests outside the cities of upstate New York. The “Place Beyond the Pines” becomes a place of refuge and of realization for the characters of the film, a place where, once we escape the spider webs of our world, we can find peace.
Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines beautifully tells the story of a broken world full of broken people trying only to fix their past mistakes or make a brighter future. It may not be a recipe for success, but it is ultimately a tale of hope. When the dust settles and the danger subsides, each character has been nearly torn apart by the great ripples of human interaction. But where there is survival, there is room to make it better. Whether it’s following in your father’s footsteps to fix what he couldn’t, or whether it’s learning to leave behind a world that means only danger for you, nothing has to stay tragic.