The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Place Beyond the Pines

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article In my short review of The Place Beyond the Pines I describe the film as ‘both painfully materialist and hesitantly, hopefully transcendental’, tying this paradoxical position to the film’s presentation of ‘men who dream the American Dream long after their contemporaries have awakened and the dream itself has died’. To my mind, The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerful and ambiguous exploration of the power of dreams, and their close cousin myth. This project takes the form of a Dionysian process of construction and de(con)struction: first the film shows the power and necessity of dreams, only to rob them of this power by demonstrating the inadequacy of dreams in the face of a harsh and unforgiving materiality. Nevertheless, the power of the dream cannot be fully contained, providing brief (all too brief) respite from the everyday. Dreaming and myth themselves become ambiguous: dreams allow escapism, but they can also be a cage to ensnare the dreamer.

This Alternate Take will explore the theme of dreams (or myth, or ideals, or aspiration… I use the term in its very loosest sense) primarily in relation to the characters of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) and Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The positioning of the characters as not-quite doubles is one of the ways in which the film explores the ambiguity of dreams. It also allows for a comparison across a class and education divide, commenting insightfully on how access and opportunity can impact on the realisation of dreams. I will consider the extent to which either Luke or Avery are able to find a way of living authentically, and the manner in which the narrative of Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) engages with this dichotomy of material/transcendental.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of repetition and return, a theme signalled in the film’s opening sequence. The exhilarating sequence in which “handsome” Luke and The Heartbreakers drive their bikes around a spherical steel cage is emblematic of Luke’s narrative, perhaps the whole film. This image, of Luke circling his cage at break-neck speeds, functions as a mise en abyme framing device. Luke’s life is a cage of endless repetition, a life of travelling fast and yet getting nowhere - a cage of speed and fury. Frustrated speed and progression are the motifs of Luke’s life. Consider, for example, his itinerant lifestyle - a life of repetition disguised as progress. Luke may move from town to town, but it is a predetermined loop where he can only ever end up where he started.

The ferris wheel is also an important image in these opening scenes, forming the backdrop to Luke’s reunion with Romina (Eva Mendes) - indeed the use of the ferris wheel signals Romina’s appearance as a return. The theme of repetition is further emphasised after Luke drops Ro home. After shots of the sun rising over Schenectady (suggesting the on-going cycle of days), there is a cut to the now familiar shot of Luke’s back, in his red biker leathers heading towards the tent as the announcer’s voice is heard. A close-up of Luke as he mounts his bike dissolves into a shot of the ferris wheel. After Luke’s face has completely faded from view he enters the shot of the ferris wheel, pacing. This scene not only cements the association between Luke and the imagery of repetition, but it also (ironically?) marks a break in his routine. Romina has not come to see him that night, and so he travels to her house and encounters an even bigger challenge to his life of repetition - a baby.

The nighttime scenes at the travelling fair are wonderfully lit, granting the scenes a transformative beauty that only cinema can impart. There are moments in both Luke and Jason’s segments of the film where otherwise mundane scenes are allowed to become more than they are, to escape their material bounds through the aestheticising look of the camera. It is in these moments that I locate the film’s hesitant transcendentalism. ‘Hesitant’ because these moments are either brief or incomplete - only a partial escape from the encroaching ‘real.’ It is telling, perhaps, that I can recall little evidence of this aesthetic practice in the middle segment of the film, suggesting a difference in Avery’s relationship to the transcendent that will be explored later in this article. Considering once again the fairground and the image of ferris wheel, it is possible to trace the intersection of the themes of repetition, dreams, and moments of transcendence.

The fairground is a liminal space, full of possibilities; the fairground at night even more so. The mystical quality of the fairground is clearly depicted through the cinematography. That it is a space outside of normal time is suggested through the editing, with prominent use of fades, dissolves, and an overlapping of sound from one scene to the next. Indeed this is characteristic of the editing in all of Luke’s chapter, perhaps subtly indicating Luke’s relationship with time is one of overlapping, connected moments running into each other rather than a strict linear progression of discrete incidents building to a conclusion.

The fairground is also a childlike space, with Luke’s connection to the ferris wheel suggesting his own childlike nature. This quality comes perhaps more from the casting of Gosling, who even under Luke’s many tattoos has a boyish innocence and puppy dog expression, coupled with a quite remarkable ability to convey adolescent incoherence and rage. There’s an echo of James Dean in East of Eden, although Gosling’s beauty is of a different order to Deans’. The fairground allows us all to escape, to become children once again for the space of a few hours, to marvel at the amazing feats of Handsome Luke and the Heartbreakers. Where the ordinary folks go home again, and are grown-ups once more by morning, Luke is always at the fair. What is an escape into childhood for others becomes a cage to Luke, trapped in a perpetual childhood. For Luke, escape is not into the fantasy of the fair but into a certain myth of adulthood, of parenthood.

For Luke, a son represents a way out of a life of meaningless repetition. As a father Luke is able to adopt a linear or vertical model of time, a model of progress rather than repetition, a model in which values are passed from father to son. That Luke is excluded from this linear (generational?) model of time is already clear from his association with repetition, but is reinforced in his declaration to Romina that “I wasn’t around my dad and look at the way I turned out”. Never being able to properly play the role of son, it seems unlikely that Luke will be able to be a father, despite his insistence that it is his “job” to look after Jason and Romina.

Fatherhood is a particularly potent dream for Luke, especially potent when taken as the pillar of that great myth, masculinity. Fatherhood becomes both the ultimate aim and confirmation of masculinity. To deny Luke the position of patriarch is to deny him not only his perceived right as a man, but his very masculinity. This is compounded by the fact that the man who is father to Jason is black, which as José Arroyo observes, the film deliberately plays upon; first eliciting a reaction from the audience and then later condemning the reaction when later voiced by AJ (Emory Cohen), who ‘conveys all kinds of demeaning assumptions through his sneer’.

Whilst Kofi (Mahershala Ali) may be presented simply and symbolically as an obstacle and challenge to masculinity in Luke’s segment of the film, he is in the fact the film’s most positive father figure. In Jason’s segment of the film, Kofi is presented unequivocally as a good father. The short scene in which he takes his troubled son for ice cream (Luke’s most potent symbol of good fatherhood, now transferred to the man he could never be) is both tender and sad. Kofi’s impression of pop-culture’s most famous absentee father suggests a lightness of touch, but the scene is painful to watch nonetheless.

The connection to fatherhood and progress is made through Luke’s suggestion that he, Romina, and Jason take to the road in his trailer. This perhaps echoes a pioneering spirit, the Romantic myth of the West informing Luke’s vision of his patriarchal role. Ro sees Luke’s plan for what it is, “a nice dream”. Luke’s pioneering masculinity is constantly thwarted; he cannot provide for his family and even his mobility is curtailed, forced to live in an immobile mobile home.

Any number of tattered myths of masculinity coalesce around Luke. Already mentioned is the myth of the Westerner, the pioneer. There is also the image of the questing knight. From this angle, Luke’s love for Romina is transformed into the chivalric ideal of unrequited love. When Luke visits Romina before Jason’s baptism, he observes that she looks like a princess. If Luke sees Romina as the princess, does this make Kofi an ogre in Luke’s eyes? It’s easy to see this KnightPrincess relationship in Luke’s need to define his masculinity through his ability to provide for his family. When Luke begins his life of crime, he transforms from White Knight to Black, from Pioneer to Outlaw. These may be less “idealised” fantasies of masculinity, but they are fantasies nonetheless. More pragmatic and less “pure”, the Black Knight and the Outlaw (or Bandit, as Luke is labelled by the media) are reactions to world in which the White Knight and Westerner no longer fit. The problem here, of course, is they assume both that there was a time when these fantasies did fit and that the world has now changed - rather than acknowledging that they were always dreams to begin with. Luke’s tragedy is that he is a man that believes in dreams, and when his dreams fail he can do nothing but replace them with more, equally flawed dreams. The performative nature of these masculine roles seems particularly evident in Luke’s robberies. Eschewing Robin’s advice, Luke instead adopts a highly theatrical criminal persona, the threat of violence bolstering his masculinity. The fragility of this persona is apparent in the extreme high pitch of Luke’s voice, and the way it cracks as he shouts - so different from Gosling’s subdued tones elsewhere in the film.

It is only in movement, in speed, that Luke can find solace - and yet speed offers only momentary, not complete escape. This is case in the brief, exhilarating motorbike sequences following the robberies - cut short by the need to conceal the bike in Robin’s truck. The relationship between transcendence and speed is beautifully implied in the sequence beginning with Jason’s baptism. The family group of Romina, Kofi, and Jason are framed low and centrally, in a longshot that makes the most of the soaring ecclesiastical architecture. Luke enters this frame (only his legs are visible) and the shot refocuses so the family group blur and become indistinct - emphasising Luke’s distance from them. A reverse shot of Luke follows, held for a few moments before cutting to close ups of the baptism ceremony before cutting back to Luke in medium shot, and back to the longshot of the family group, which Luke then exits. This symmetrical series of shots arranged around the close up of the Jason’s baptism plays out Luke’s yearning while emphasising his distance, the close up of Jason emblematic of closeness Luke will never have. Later in the sequence, a close up of Jason being marked by the sign of the cross, framed by Kofi and Romina, is followed by a shot of Luke in close up, the long lens blurring the background (a stained glass window?) to the point of abstraction, emphasising Luke’s isolation. As the choral music builds, it is joined by a melancholic guitar and Luke begins to weep as his son is welcomed into the family of the church, completing Luke’s exclusion. The sound of Luke’s motorbike builds over the applause of the congregation, and there is a disorientating cut to shot from a moving bike. The image is again blurred to abstraction, but this time through speed - contrasting with the stasis of the church. Luke is also a part of this blurred image, no longer isolated as he was in the church. The transcendence that was inaccessible to Luke in the church is obtainable through speed, it seems.

Luke’s meeting with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn on superb form) also suggests the potential of being welcomed into a new family, albeit one outside of the idealised nuclear family Luke imagines (this potential family bond is expressed neatly through the image of Luke’s motorcycle and Robin’s quad-bike side by side in Robin’s trailer). The time spent with Robin represents another, ambiguous, escape. Like the fairground, the forest is another liminal space, a nowhere-place outside of time. Robin and Luke’s dialogue floats over several scenes, all of them scenes of leisure, patching together scenes that could be minutes, hours, or even days apart. Robin represents an alternative to the repetition of the fairground and to the linear, generational time of the family, but Luke wants no part in it. The friendship between Luke and Robin offers a way for both men to be father and son, to be mutually supportive, to be brothers. It’s the film’s only really positive depiction of male camaraderie. Avery hopes to find it in the police force, but it is shown to be corrupt. AJ offers the hand of friendship to Jason, and their early scenes ditching class, getting stoned, rapping, and talking about The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985) recall Luke’s time with Robin. These scenes of friendship quickly sour, however, when it’s made clear that AJ sees Jason as little more than a drugs contact. Cohen’s physical performance is wonderful throughout these scenes, a performance of a performance of a certain type of shuffling, hulking, Brandoesque masculinity.

Luke ultimately shuns Robin’s friendship, unable to see how this could be a viable alternative to the road or to fatherhood. Rather than seeing opportunity with Robin, Luke only sees a premonition of what he could become. When shown the trailer Robin offers him, Luke comments “it must get lonely”, his statement followed by a shot of Luke on his bike, on an empty road. Luke may find solace on the open road, but his loneliness is self-imposed, enforced by his overreliance on the telos of heterosexual pairing and parenthood.

It is Robin, however, who introduces Luke to the world of crime. This decision tacitly acknowledges Luke as a man who does not fit, a man out of time. As Robin observes, Luke has a very particular skill set. It is this that sets him apart and makes him suited to a life of crime. There is also a suggestion here, however, that men like Robin and Luke have been let down by - or rather, have been left out of - a system that perpetuates the myth of opportunity while simultaneously excluding large groups. It may be pushing things slightly to suggest that Luke’s activities are not affronts to this system, but rather a mirroring of it, although the systematic dismantling of Avery’s idealism in the second chapter suggests there is a critique of this nature running through the film. The cut from the scene of Luke taking his family for ice cream to a computer monitor smashing to the ground in a robbery suggest the brutality that makes such familial bliss possible, the hidden violence that bolsters the American Dream.

In his final moments, Luke seems to acknowledge the futility of his endeavours. On the phone to Ro, he utters a phrase that would have been unthinkable to him earlier in the film. In asking Romina not to tell their son about him, Luke finally turns away from generational time, severing his ties from posterity. Luke’s death, expelled from the window of a family home in which he never belonged, is a particularly bitter addition. That Luke is killed by a man that has everything Luke desires, and yet wants none of it, is another.

Avery’s chapter, like Luke’s, opens to the sound of laboured breathing over a black screen. This fosters the connection between the two men, although it seems similarity is only invoked to render their differences more striking. Take for instance, the recording of Avery’s first impressions of the shooting. This is supposedly a mere formality, but soon takes on the tones of interrogation. Avery’s stilted replies at first suggest a man not unlike Luke, one who lacks the language to tame and express his experience. In fact, the reverse is true. Avery’s responses suggest, if not a mastery, at least an understanding of the formal use of language, and its relation to power. This is clear in his questions -“what would you like me to tell you?” - and his reliance on the phrase “I was making myself known […] That’s all we need to do, make ourselves known”. Avery’s mastery of language is such that he is able to shape the truth to the extent that not only is he acquitted of any accusations of unlawful killing (which his shooting of Luke appears to be), he is considered a hero for it.

Avery’s ability to master language, rather than be mastered by it (consider Luke’s plea to Ro, “don’t talk down to me”) seems to be a learned trait. Avery is firmly embedded in the very system that excludes Luke, not simply the law but Patriarchal Law. Unlike Luke, Avery is firmly part of a family unit with a wife and son. Avery also differs from Luke in having a father, although Avery’s father (Harris Yulin) is an ambivalent influence in Avery’s life. Avery is firmly ensconced within the law - as son, as father, as lawyer and policeman, both a student of the law (son) and its enforcer (father).

And yet Avery seeks to break from this position, desiring a more hands on, authentic relationship to the law. Accepting his medal, Avery makes a speech in which he recalls law school, and the discussions he and his classmates had about justice: “But that\"s just what they were, discussions. I joined the police force because I wanted to work alongside the brave men and women who know that some problems can\"t be solved by talking.” In this speech, Avery exhibits a strain of Romanticised masculinity that values actions over words, doing over thinking. It’s also a Romantic view of the blue-collar world as somehow more authentic than the white-collar, and therefore pictures it as desirable (a particularly middle-class sensibility that is echoed in AJ’s speech and mannerisms that mask his privileged upbringing). This fantasy is in some ways the inverse of Luke’s. Luke seeks escape into a realm of ideas and ideals away from his all-too-real existence. Avery idealises the “real”, finding his privileged existence weightless, theoretical, and ineffectual.

Avery’s idealism is just as misplaced as Luke’s however, as he discovers when the corruption of his comrades is revealed. Avery himself isn’t entirely immune from this, choosing to hide the money rather than report it. This may, however, be out of some misguided belief in the camaraderie of the police force, which would make ratting out his fellows a greater crime than taking the money. This surely seems to be the opinion of Chief Weirzbowski (Robert Clohessy) when Avery does finally attempt to report the corrupt activities of his department. As is later shown with AJ and Jason, Deluca (Ray Liotta) may appear to offer friendship but really offers nothing but manipulation and intimidation.

This perversion of camaraderie is played out in the two home invasions helmed by Deluca. The first is Deluca’s inveigling himself into the Cross household, playing on Avery’s somewhat dim-witted hospitality. I can’t quite explain why this scene plays out so uncomfortably, although it certainly has something to do with the effect it has of cracking the veneer of the tired WifeGirlfriend vs The Lads trope to display something more sinister underneath - like if David Lynch directed a Jason Segel comedy. Rose Byrne is particularly sympathetic in these scenes, the closeups granting some access to her interiority through the subtlest changes in her expression as she resists being cast as the ball-busting wife by Deluca & co. The second invasion, of Romina’s house, is more overtly sinister but clearly on a continuum with the first. It’s also here that Avery is forced to acknowledge the damaging effects of his actions first hand, their reality figuratively brought home.

Avery finds himself trapped within the very system Luke so desired to be a part of. He rebels against the wishes of his father and family, and yet finds the idealised escape of the police force to be even more compromised. Like Luke, Avery is in a cage of his own making, but Avery’s cage is marked by the rigid linearity of (patriarchal) law, symbolised by the gridlike cage of the evidence locker. In some respects Avery is much worse off than Luke, as he is denied the limited transcendent escape afforded to Luke. The inaccessibility of the ideal is illustrated by the same choral strains that accompanied Jason’s baptism. When Avery returns to work, he is greeted by the adulation of peers, his return accompanied by the baptismal music. Buoyed up this, Avery requests he be made Lieutenant in charge of special investigations, based in part on the systems he’s put in place and in part because of his education. Despite Avery’s longing for a more authentic, hands on experience of the law it seems he isn’t against relying on his privileged background to get what he wants. The chasm between Avery’s ideals and his reality are made clear when the chief tells Avery he’s got to get back to real life.

Although Avery is unable to experience moments of transcendence the way Luke is (indeed, when Avery goes out into the woods he risks death at the hands of Deluca and Jason, rather than escape and friendship) he can rely on his father to rescue him and return him to his rightful place. The closest Luke has to this is the mutually supportive father/son Robin, who he violently rejects. The help of the father is not freely given, however, and is rather a Faustian pact that involves breaking perceived codes of Avery’s police family (ratting out his fellow officers) and bending to his father’s wishes (choosing politics, rather than the law). Breaking the codes of the corrupt police is no great loss, but D.A. Bill Kilcullen’s (Bruce Greenwood) vehement refusal to shake Avery’s hand is the final blow to Avery’s idealism. When Avery reappears fifteen years later at his father’s funeral, his much closer to the well groomed and easy smiling Cooper of The Hangover or Limitless, and to extent the film uses Cooper’s persona so that Avery becomes a Bradley Cooper character - suave, cynical, and fast talking, Cooper makes for a convincing politician.

Avery may live and thrive, but it’s only by turning his idealism into ambition, which is perhaps all it was to begin with. Luke is able to accept the ungraspable nature of his dreams, but can only do so on the brink of death. Luke may have moments of transcendence, but ultimately he is trapped, doomed from his opening stunt to a life both brutal and short. Avery is clearly better equipped to play the game than Luke, but the film seems to suggest that the game is unfair to start with, and that even if the deck is stacked in your favour you don’t win by playing fair. AJ seems much like his father, although he lacks Avery’s initial idealism and is as result much less sympathetic. Like Avery, he rebels against his father and yet his final appearance, applauding his father on the stage, shows he is not against re-entering that privileged space. Perhaps I read this scene too cynically though, and it actually represents a true reconciliation between father and son.

It’s tantalising to see the sons as offering a solution to the problems of the fathers, but the film seems to take a particularly ambiguous stance on this. As already noted, the film teasingly presents an initial friendship between the pair, but this quickly sours. If anything the film demonstrates a deep suspicion for the belief that children are the answer. Luke dies for his commitment to this belief, whilst AJ has an even worse relationship with Avery than Avery had with his father. There is of course the figure of Kofi, the film’s good father, and yet even he can’t solve all of Jason’s problems - only Jason can do that. Jason is initially preoccupied with his origins, desperately searching for more information about his biological father and even tracking down Robin. But for all Robin’s claims that Jason is “calling him back” when he dons Luke’s goofy glasses, Jason eventually develops a healthier relationship to his past and origins. This is not until after a period where he begins to descend the same destructive spiral of violence as his father, turning Hamlet and seeking vengeance on his father’s killer. Instead, Jason turns to look forward rather than back, concerned with discovering who he is, now that he’s found his father.

If the film does present Jason’s narrative as a solution to Luke and Avery’s, it’s only a partial one. The end of Jason’s story (the beginning of Jason’s story?) taps into the same frustrated myths of the Westerner, of the road, of wanderlust, of self-reliance, self-definition. It’s the same mythologizing of authenticity, this time expressed in the landscape of rural America. The film’s ending is so powerful because it engages so directly with this still powerful myth. As Jason drives away, disappearing into the wilderness and a miniscule, fuzzy, American flag is visible in the centre of the screen, the film seems to be willing you to believe. “This time,” it whispers, “this time it might work”. As the vocals of Bon Iver’s The Wolves (Act I and II) kick in, you almost believe it. Or at least, you want to believe it - and to my mind that’s far more powerful. For all that the film deconstructs its myths, it devotes its final moments to making an eloquent case for still needing to have dreams. To believe that someday, somewhere it will be better. That somewhere used to be the frontier, used to be America. Perhaps now it’s only in the cinema.

This Alternate Take was published on August 12, 2013.

Post your views

Article comments powered by Disqus

Share this article

Special FX

- Jump to the comments
- Print friendly format
- Email article to a friend

Similar articles

- How to Train Your Dragon 2
- How I Live Now: Alternate Take
- Prince Avalanche
- Byzantium: Alternate Take
- Girl Most Likely

More from this writer

- Festive Films Part 3: The Muppet Christmas Carol and the Spirit of Christmas
- Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
- Reflecting on Robots: Representations of A.I. in Recent Film
- Chappie
- Transcendence: Alternate Take