Sins are lived twice and men act as mirrors of each other, regardless of how disparate their histories and futures. They atone of their transgressions in mere glances. This isn’t just a movie, a film, or simply a script – this is real life. As sloppy, unforgiving and secretive as a hard life lived breathlessly. I’m reminded of the Bible verse, “And the sins of the father, shall be revisited upon their sons.” You’ve never seen more potent and visceral acting coming from Ryan Gosling as Luke Glanton or Bradley Cooper as Avery Cross. Eva Mendes is so earthy and true to the young mother stressed to her soul, with a dozen fears and worries piling up, her facial expressions are words in themselves. No matter how many times Ray Liotta has played the classic tough-guy persona of questionable ethics, it always comes across as brand new. That’s a gift.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (co-written & directed by Derek Cianfrance from BLUE VALENTINE) plays out in a mini-Detroit, Schenectady, New York. Schenectady means ‘the place beyond the pines’ in Iroquois. And it acts as the perfect place where desperation and generations of men and boys are confronted with the actions of their fore bearers. No one is born free of sin or transgression. We carry the past against our will. Our names are enough to imprison us. We might try to escape like Luke, but we soon learn, “If you ride like lightning, you’ll crash like thunder.” I have come to understand, as the child of a fatherless upbringing, that the absence (and presence) of our fathers will perturb us in more ways than we are willing to admit. We are a part of a legacy, both good and bad, and in between. One decision on the part of those before us can change everything.
Luke Glanton is a stunt motorcycle driver with a traveling circus. He rides inside a spherical cage named The Globe of Death at breakneck speeds with five others, to riotous applause. To add to the authenticity of these characters, Gosling did his own stunts, along with Cooper. Gosling was trained by Rick Miller (“Every time Batman gets on a motorcycle, that’s Rick Miller”). His gig, as Luke and The Heartthrobs, is always on the go and when we meet Luke, we see he likes it that way, until Romina (Eva Mendes) re-appears in his life. Romina hasn’t told him their one night stands left her pregnant and a single mother to a chubby baby named Jason, with deep-blue eyes like his father. She’s moved on now with another man. He’s desperate to take care of his responsibility and not be anything like his own father. Luke is tattoo-addled and never wears his shirt right side in. He’s turned inside out, wearing his heart on his sleeve, sensitive to the touch, but his deceiving looks of a hard shell or cactus prickles are only a protective barrier. He’s looking to belong, to be loved in return. To feel what it’s like to do right by his progeny. But he ends up just like he hoped he wouldn’t – in trouble and alone.
This film is bubbling over with 1990s aesthetics like cut-off jean shorts, bleach blonde hair, ”wife beaters”, Metallica t-shirts, plastic hair claws and scrunchies, tie-dye, neon, track suit jackets, tapered jeans and white sneakers – THE PINES lets you return to the past, almost in act of recognition and remembrance. It’s refreshing in a sea of sugary blockbusters you’ll soon forget, with an assemble of actors often praised more for their looks and sex-appeal and not their talent, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES allows us to reach beyond what we think we know and embrace the shadows of an eery forest. In THE PINES we see no pure evil, bad intentions or unselfish goodness from the characters. We see men and boys mirroring each other; a “good” man and a “bad” man can be identical.
A dark triad reveals itself in rookie policeman Avery Cross, who we meet mid-way in the film. He’s naive, pragmatic but overpowered by Machiavellian desires. Avery is at an impasse of truth and denial, his whole life is unraveling. He’s also struggling with his morality and his connections to the man he’s supposed to have nothing but animosity towards. He can see bits of himself in Luke. Their sons are even the same age. Cooper is always a genius as a jock or “one of the boy’s club” but he’s met his match with Gosling as a balancer of unchecked privilege and a conscious awakening of corruption at his precinct, which he does, as any well-groomed popular kid would, use to his advantage.
Watching THE PINES has conjured up my reactions to Gosling’s other stellar work in DRIVE, BLUE VALENTINE and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. Gosling has so much cinema and humanity left in him. I hope his plans of retirement are a hoax.
The complexities of the male identity find a spotlight in THE PINES. The place of responsibility, defiance of authority, violence, self-reliance, insecurity, fatherhood, shirking fear, privilege, abandonment, loyalty, lies and independence make a second entrance in the lives of Luke’s son, Jason (Dane DeHaan, who reminds me of a young Leonardo DiCaprio), and Avery’s son, AJ, (Emory Cohen). They act as incarnations of their respective fathers, but with a whole new set of priorities and unflinching desires.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a collection of outcasts destined to be together.