Can't Start A Fire Without A Face Tattoo
by SHELBY SHAW
The Place Beyond the Pines
dir. Derek Cianfrance
The opening scene of The Place Beyond The Pines is a long take travelling from inside a trailer to inside a metal cage of death, three stunt motorcyclists speeding in arcs of physical defiance around one another. This is their job, day in and day out, from city to city. They are entertainers, risk-takers, vagabonds. They thrill to please for a few hours’ time until they make their long-awaited return the next year.
Like clichéd rock stars without any of the status or benefits or names, this is the never-ending cycle – albeit an unpredictable one set amidst a predictable string of domestic cities – in which Luke (Ryan Gosling) thrives.
The traditional tattoos adorning Luke’s blonde and innocently tough demeanor were co-designed by Gosling and Ben Shields, and all of them are fake – but that didn’t stop Gosling from telling director Derek Cianfrance that he felt like the face tattoo he originally insisted on, a small dagger with a drop of blood, was a tad overboard. “That's what happens when you get a face tattoo. You regret it and now you have to regret it for the whole movie,” Cianfrance had replied. And so we have our theme: living in post, dealing with past, coping in the present and seeming fine.
In Schenectady (which translates roughly from Mohawk to “the place beyond the pines”) Romina (Eva Mendes) cares for Luke’s unknown-to-him son, Jason. When Cianfrance reveals this, he lets the camera linger past the moment, Romina's mother Malena (Olga Merediz) eagerly offering Luke to Jason. He gravely cradles the baby, protective and proud and determined; he is quickly becoming a father in the doorway between entering Romina and Jason’s life and the porch that will lead Luke back to the carnival, back to leaving again for at least another year.
Romina is either always crying or trying to be the mature one in control of her conversations with Luke, who doesn’t show so much emotion with his face as with his actions. Could there be ladies like Romina all over the country for this traveling man?
We never find out exactly what happened between Romina and Luke – was it a one-night fling, a week long, a repeat during summers for years, just one day? At first this is frustrating because it could have been a major telling point in how they reacted with each other, or why they didn’t act in certain ways, but then I realized that it doesn’t matter. What matters is everything after he left, which is only coming together because Luke is back for a few hours by fate. The dialogue feels as if it may have been caught candidly on camera and polished up by a colorist. The longer takes let the story unravel as if – for once – we really were there.
Accomplice Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) understands that Luke needs money so he offers a resolution: rob a bank. He’s done it four times twelve years ago and stopped when suspicion started to come his way. He is nonchalant. He is serious. So he teaches the curious Luke how to do it: go for the oldest female bank clerk, then the meekest, don’t take out your gun. “I did four banks with a note,” Robin says.
Luke disregards the advice on his first heist. It’s humorous, but at the same time it’s not for laughing at as we watch the entire process slowly, wincing at how Luke doesn’t know what he’s doing. Yet these people are still scared as he kicks around their desks, shouting hoarsely. I’m surprised that no one really ever reacts during the hold-ups other than to remain calm and obey Luke. Wouldn’t cops start to notice his motorcycle escapes?
After the successful hold-up, he vomits in the back of Robin’s truck. He may be a stuntman by profession, but he isn’t a con artist. They’re about as excited as school boys who scored the hottest dates to the dance. At Robin’s they party to Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” a scene that feels almost awkwardly too long to watch, but that’s because it is. This is all these guys have to celebrate.
Luke is only ever dangerous twice: once lashing out on Romina’s boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), in an almost expressionless state, and once in a passively aggressive move on Robin to get his money for a new bike. Violence doesn’t seem to be a part of baby-faced Luke, biker outlaw. When he sets out on the most fateful robbery yet, everything goes wrong before he even goes into the bank – you wince with every slip of his plan.
This time delays allow the cops to catch up to him as he’s leaving, and a long pursuit ensues through the town, the cemetery, side streets. Luke is getting worse and worse at this game as it goes on, the camera transcending the viewer into a virtual reality, Luke getting trapped and banged up until on foot, running into the closest home. Avery (Bradley Cooper) is eager to take down the bad guy and is clearly on edge with Luke trapped on the top floor.
Here the movie folds into the second third of its triptych setup. By the time we meet Avery I’m surprised to start finding more screen time with the cop and his corrupt co-officers – the film could easily have finished out with Luke and Romina’s story. But Cianfrance keeps Luke in your mind not only because of his history and impact on the rest of the film, but because of what we’ve learned of Luke so far, which is enough to bring us so close we remember him even when he’s gone. Moving into the second part feels almost like a betrayal.
Cianfrance’s story isn’t so much three different stories as it is simply three parts along the timeline of one tale. He brings us into each part deep enough to become invested, and when we move on it’s jarring in an emotional way, missing the characters and stories we had been seeing. We are in the company of wolves with Avery now, and it is only the beginning; he takes an honorable risk to dismantle the corrupt police force and becomes assistant district attorney.
We then resume the story fifteen years later, which seems more like today, which is a beautiful thing Cianfrance has done from the beginning: he doesn’t lay out the opening year for you. Everything seems contemporary but with a strange twist – no smart phones, no hi-tech security in the banks, no fancy Apple computers there either, a disposable camera at the ice cream shop, and clothing that makes you wonder if they’re being hip – but they’re just living in the 90s, with no money, and not concerned over clothing trends. The only concern I have with the jump is the lack of change between Avery and wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) then, and now. Fifteen years, a divorce and a kid don’t seem to have left any impression.
Avery’s son, AJ, now grown up as a high school senior with slicked hair, exposed chest hair, and a permanent scowl that looks like he could be wearing a mouth guard, moves in with Avery, now a successful man in the DA office, going after politics. We are not surprised to learn, at Avery's father's funeral, that he and Jennifer split up. AJ is careless in regards to school or life. Dad’s got a nice house and that’s all he needs. But he doesn’t have friends in Schenectady – still, it’s hard to feel bad for this kid who clearly just wants to cause moody trouble.
At lunch one day, the familiar cliché of the new kid without a table to sit at, you feel a little pity for AJ. He is a bitter standout among cliques of teens who don’t gel their hair or wear white tank tops. He sits across from a lanky boy, sitting alone, content with eating, looking sly though, a loner but not because he’s a rebel, a loner because he is meek in the company of his peers. He seems a little uncomfortable with AJ – clearly not the type of kid he would take for a friend – but admits he too does drugs, sure, we can leave right now to go smoke. It’s an adventure for them, bonding over whatever they can. As they get high in a tunnel the sound is distorted through marijuana and the façade of thinking they might have just made friends. AJ later has his friend get him ecstasy from a shabby run-down house on a dark town road. Leaving the dealer’s, the cops immediately bust the kids.
Coming to bail out his son, Avery asks about the other boy. His name is Jason Glanton, Luke and Romina’s son. Avery goes into the holding room where AJ tries to apologize, but Avery has him up against the wall, rough, “you can have anything you want but I don’t want you to fucking touch that kid.” AJ has no idea what’s going on, but Avery is terrifying. After AJ questions Jason about Kofi, Jason uncovers suppressed questions regarding his father, getting Kofi to tell him Luke’s name for the first time, which he then takes to Google to find out about Luke the outlaw and Avery the hero who killed him.
After Jason finds out Avery is AJ’s dad, he goes to his dealer’s house that night for a gun, bluntly giving us the foreshadowing for when he shows up in the mirror of AJ’s room the next morning, gun pointed, firing. When Avery comes home, unknowing of any of this, he stops on the stairs, as if suspecting something is wrong with his son – but he then backs down the stairs, Jason pointing the gun at him, giving commands. No word on AJ. Avery drives them into the woods where he and Jason have one of the tensest moments, the camera trailing slowly from the gun down Avery’s back, never knowing when, if it will go off. Jason is not a killer. Neither was his father. But we may have had the least amount of time with this character in this end of the triptych – maybe we don’t know him the way we thought.
The Place Beyond the Pines is not a straightforward narrative about fathers and sons – Cianfrance has made a film worth seeing because it’s more than just a story, it’s a complex layering of affairs, one set in a reality with which we are all familiar. He introduces us to an array of characters who could all be people we know, or ourselves. The cast doesn’t need to convince us of anything – we’re with them all the time, as they morph into dysfunctional families who have found ways of coping and living in routine, and as they deal with the secrets any family has.
Cianfrance’s pacing feels natural in the triptych story, revealing key points embedded in each scene, long and observant on the characters where the emotions are the actions. Sure, there are some thrilling chase scenes, some suspense, but the film isn’t so much about what the characters are doing as much as it is about how the consequences are affecting them; we learn what they do as they do, we put together the pieces as they do, in ways that leave us thinking it over again and again, taking it personally to try to figure out each character.
Cianfrance doesn’t have plot holes in his story, he has room for us to consider these people on levels beyond just script-deep. They aren’t flat at all, they’re fully dimensional like anyone else we know in our lives, neighbors we might see daily or people we share a commute with: we know who they are, what they do, we might know a little about their family or what they like, we might know a secret or two, but we don’t know everything about them. We can try to sympathize, and some of us might empathize, and for that we are brought a little closer to these characters. They move us, more than any other film ensemble of the year.
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