"The Place Beyond the Pines" - A Patrimony of Lostness


After one of the most dire news weeks in recent years, my wife and I thought we might go see a movie to lighten the mood and get lost in a good story. The Place Beyond the Pines came highly recommended from friends and family. I didn't know much about it, except that it was the follow-up to Derek Cianfrance's bleak but poignant Blue Valentine, another Gosling film about a marriage fading into apathy and dysfunction.

It was the wrong choice after a rough week. We collapsed on the couch afterwards, defeated. But it was the best film I've seen, and will see, all year. Solidly acted across the board, beautifully shot, and brilliantly directed, The Place Beyond the Pines puts Cianfrance in the company of great American filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers, something which Blue Valentine couldn't and didn't do.

Transporting Greek fatalism and Shakespearean tragedy into the disarray and malaise of modern life, The Place Beyond the Pines - thanks in no small part to a haunting, baroque soundtrack by Mike Patton - creates a world that borders on the horrific. This is an immense credit to Cianfrance - because what we see unfold is, in a lot of ways, a very realistic plot about fathers and sons, and decisions involving money, careers, and families. But meanwhile, unsettling, even terrifying impressions land and spread through the story like a terminal disease.

What immediately sets the film apart is its straight linear narrative and triptych structure, or three "acts." This might be overwhelming for some people - the sprawling, multi-generational plot spanning two and a half hours can feel more novelistic than cinematic - but Cianfrance makes it work. The Place Beyond the Pines is not three films slapped into one, but a unified trinity.

An interview with Cianfrance gives us a deeper appreciation for the story and its structure, which emphasize the fixed, temporal nature of legacy and lineage:

To me, the bravest thing we could do with this movie was to do it chronologically and not cut away. First off, twenty years ago, I saw "Napoleon" by Abel Gance, I always wanted to make a triptych movie. I always had these notes of this triptych movie. Also about twenty years ago, I saw "Psycho" for the first time and I’d always known there was the shower scene in "Psycho," I just didn't know you had to spend 45 minutes with Janet Leigh before she went into the shower and that kind of baton passed down from Janet Leigh to Tony Perkins, just blew my mind. So I always had that structure and then when my wife was pregnant with our second son in 2007 I was thinking a lot about becoming a father again and I was thinking about legacy, I was thinking about all of the things that have been passed on to me and thinking about everything that I was going to pass on to my kid and I was thinking that I just want him to be born into this world clean. I didn't want to give him any of my old sins, you know what I mean, any of my wrongdoings. So all of a sudden, I had a story of legacy, which was about like a baton pass too. It was like passing the torch, passing the fire from one generation to the next, and all of a sudden, I had a movie. I had something to tell.

In the first act, we meet Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman and rebel without a cause who stands caught between key decisions of his past and his future. These choices seem relatively small and practical in the moment, but unalterably affect the course of his life and the lives of countless others - the first great lesson of the film.

Glanton's decisions, in turn, throw us into the life of ladder-climbing law student and Schenectady police officer Avery Cross (Schenectady derives from the Mohawk for "place beyond the pines"). Bradley Cooper expertly draws us into Cross' conscience and heart, which are forever altered by his fateful encounter Glanton and his dishonest way of handling it.

The third act focuses on the sons of both men - one with a father figure that is not his father, and one with a father that's not much of a father figure - who have inherited and are grappling with their parents' decisions. In a very natural, believable way, the two teenagers meet and befriend each other, and are hurled onto a steady, Oedipus-Rex-like collision course of violence and despair.

Through these three acts, Cianfrance's great task is building up a sense of tragic necessity - and he succeeds. Dostoevsky once, in a bleaker mood, described the possibility of seeing nature as "some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast...some huge engine of the latest design...a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated." This perfectly captures the world of The Place Beyond the Pines; the characters ultimately appear helpless, thrown onto a dark, implacable, mechanized course that's chosen for them.

But there's more to it. Cianfrance also captures what he calls the "eternity of every moment." With long, lingering shots and documentary-style editing, he plunges us into the profundity of a given scene: of people situated in certain places, with certain dispositions, free to choose one way or another. So we're caught between two impressions of this place beyond the pines: either the fate of the characters is fixed - actions linked to other actions, people to other people, in a rigid, machine-like way - or it's the result of the chaotic skubala of human desires, of human freedom. Or, maybe somehow, it's both.

But all of this doesn't have to be as disturbing as The Place Beyond the Pines is, however unsettling the question of determinism can be. Cianfrance says in interviews that he was inspired by his own children, and he could have easily written a story about virtue, honor, dignity, strength, courage, conviction, tradition, faith - in short, purpose - passed from fathers to sons, and the same questions about fate vs. freedom in the grand scheme of things would be in play. (Think Forrest Gump: "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.")

Instead, the fatalism of Cianfrance's story haunted by a specter of despair, self-absorption, and moral obscurity and deterioration. Kevin Jagernauth, writing for Indiewire, rightly says that the film "could be regarded as an allegory for the moral turpitude that has shaken the American dream." This, I think, is what gives the film its horrific quality; we're made to sense that these characters are really cut off and adrift, that things are somehow upside down. The two fathers aren't totally ignoble - both show us a tender, well-meaning heart at times - but they are both in a state of flight; they flee from their consciences, from their loved ones, from their duties. They don't seem to know how to navigate their worlds.

This "moral turpitude" is tied in with a crisis of fatherhood - not only of fathers that are physically absent, but emotionally and spiritually absent also. The Place Beyond the Pines forcefully reminds us of an undeniable human reality: that sons not only crave to know and love their real fathers, but to be known and loved by those fathers, to receive guidance, inspiration, and moral direction from them. Without either, they suffer enormously. They get angry.

But on a more profound (and not unrelated) level, this moral aimlessness seems to be tied in with a crisis of purpose, or meaning. Not only do they not seem to know how to act, they don't seem to know why to act either, or to what end. This feeling towers and looms over us tenfold when that turpitude spreads through the family and becomes generational, echoing into their sons' lives where it's really revealed for what it is: a patrimony of lostness, a non-inheritance. The lost sons turn to each other, to weed, to music - what else can they do? - but the sunny peace of marijuana and freestyling (beautifully paired with Ennio Morricone) is momentary, and the great shadow rushes back in. Their lives seem to lack significance or vitality in the deepest way; but there they are, thrown into the world, tagged with this history out of the gate.

Although that's the somber suggestion of the film, there are two key scenes that seem to break through it all - and they're connected by a song. Cianfrance discusses these scenes in an interview with The Examiner:

JR: Now, I kind of noticed something too, and I could be wrong about this, but you have this really killer baptism scene in the film where Ryan Gosling sneaks in and watches another man hold his son while he's getting baptized. Did you play the same musical cue later in the movie when Bradley Cooper returns to the police station?

DC: Yes.

JR: Ok, why did you do that?

DC: It just felt like institution. It felt cathartic. I grew up Catholic. I have a lot of residual, I guess, Catholic guilt. I remember when I went and saw The Gospel According to St. Matthew when I was in college I had to leave and go to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack. I was just having an anxiety attack watching that movie because it was so intense. So, to me, it's this kind of religion, guilt that hangs over these characters in this world. I just thought that it would connect these two people and I wanted it to be the same world. So, that score, that church music to play that in Avery's church so-to-speak, where he goes with all these police officers who are sacrificing. I wanted it to elevate what was happening on the screen. We're dealing with normal, ordinary people who wouldn't necessarily have a film told about them so I wanted the score to be cathartic to their experience.

JR: I think it was a cool touch. When I caught it I was like, wow that was pretty neat. He has almost the same breakdown Ryan had in the church in the elevator ride up to find out what's going to happen with him.

In the context of The Place Beyond the Pines, we encounter a guilt that's not a psychological tick or hangup, but more an intrusion of actual grace, a sort of supernatural push that, in Catholic theology, every person receives, but not every person responds to. As Glanton watches his son's baptism in the arms of another man, tears fall, and so does his tough guy persona - through profound regret and pain, he's called to change, to grow, to become a better man.

The same happens to Cross; he sashays through the police station, back-slapping and joking with other officers. But when he gets in the elevator, his face falls, and again, so does his act. He feels the call to authenticity, regretting the web of lies he's weaved for himself.

But both men fail to respond to these divine nudges. They reject the invitation to be transformed and elevated, and march defiantly down their paths, even as that curious soundtrack choice "Miserere Mei" (or "have mercy on me") whispers around them.

Glanton goes on riding through his life like lightning, and "crashes like thunder"; and just as Cross is almost brought to his own destructive end, we see a third moment of grace, this time in the face of great violence - something straight out of a Flannery O'Connor story. He cries and begs for forgiveness, not so much from the person holding the gun, but from the source of all things, for the choices that have brought him to this moment. He's reduced to rubble - but maybe, for the first time, to true freedom.

This note of forgiveness isn't incidental. As Cianfrance explains in a Washington Times interview:

The film has a general ethos of forgiveness. I didn't intentionally make a biblical film, but in watching it 'Pines' feels biblical, and I think that came out through osmosis. I'm not really a message filmmaker, but I work from a deeply personal place.

In addition to guilt, grace, and a biblical emphasis on forgiveness, Cianfrance makes notable mention of sacrifice, personally as well as artistically. "Right now," he says in another interview, "I think I have time to be three things, in no particular order: a father, a husband, and a filmmaker. That's why I don't go out – I have no space for it. I feel like one of those main things would suffer. For what? For drinking? I'm not interested. Sacrifice. It all goes back to Catholicism. Sacrifice."

As a stark portrayal of the tragedy of broken families in the 21st century, the transmission of moral and existential lostness from fathers to sons, and the uncanny encounters that bind the lives of strangers, Cianfrance's film is one for the ages; but it's even more remarkable for these glimpses of grace, of self-sacrifice, against all of that - especially in this final scene with Cross. Cianfrance does a bang-up job of dragging us through the machinery of nature and tragedy, of crime and punishment; but in this scene, we're blinded with a light of freedom and forgiveness. A fated confrontation that has to end in more sadness and bloodshed, doesn't. The fates are spurned, and the sins of the fathers are lifted. The cycle of tragic necessity breaks. And as we watch Glanton ride out into the unknown to Bon Iver (the first and only breezy song of the film), there is a sense, if not of peace, of hope - the first disoriented, wobbly step onto a different way.

Three cheers for Cianfrance and The Place Beyond the Pines.

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