Cinema is often at its best when it presents characters and stories that teeter on the edge of civilisation and morality. More interesting is when a film itself walks a tightrope between conventional narrative cinema and something that challenges audience expectations about film form. The Place Beyond the Pines derives its title from a loose English translation of the Native American word Schenectady, the name of the New York State city where the film is set. This title also evokes the sense of an otherworldly space beyond the recognisable world, in a way not too dissimilar to the mysterious forest in the television series Twin Peaks (created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, 1990-1991). While The Place Beyond the Pines is a far less abstract work than something like Twin Peaks, it still possesses a mysterious examination of morality and fate through characters who mirror each other throughout the film’s unexpected shifts.
Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance previously demonstrated his skill in handling interlinking narratives from different time periods in the tragic love story Blue Valentine. What he is doing in The Place Beyond the Pines is less obvious, but more ambitious even if it ultimately is not as satisfying as his previous film. Nevertheless, The Place Beyond the Pines contains a commendable attempt to experiment with film narrative in a way that emphasises the themes of the film.
Cianfrance has teamed up again with actor Ryan Gosling who as the character Luke Glanton is introduced breathing in darkness before a continuous long shot shows us his tattooed body as he plays with a knife and then walks through a carnival where he will take part in a motorbike stunt display. He is a transgressive character from the fringe of society who later leaves the transient space of the carnival in an attempt to create a ‘normal’ life upon learning that he has had a son with Romina (Eva Mendes), an ex lover who lives locally. At the climax of the impressive introductory long shot, Luke rides his motorbike into a large circular metal cage with two unseen co-riders as the performance begins. The structure of The Place Beyond the Pines is reflected symbolically by the cage as an enclosed narrative containing interlinking riders whose destiny is in the hands of each other.
As the film develops it becomes a study of the sliding scale of morality. It is established that prospects for Luke are limited so he makes decisions that challenge the audience’s perception of him as an underdog who is trying to better himself. Cianfrance and Gosling display considerable talent in making Luke a character who is in one moment likeable and in another compromising good will and common sense. Later in the film he is paralleled with Bradley Cooper’s policeman character Avery Cross, who exists on the opposite side of the law, but is also challenged with difficult moral decisions and as a result makes compromises and struggles to emerge unscathed.
As well as narrative and relationship similarities, both characters are presented through similar stylistic techniques, filmed by tracking shots from behind accompanied by the same ‘heavenly’ choral music to emphasise their fall from grace. With his blond hair and torn white t-shirt Luke in particular resembles something of a fallen angel. Considering the themes of fate and fatherhood that loom large over the film, the symbolism of a sinning angel who is cast out of heaven by its creator is fitting.
The thematic duality between Luke and Avery evokes the police procedural melodramas by directors such as John Woo and Michael Mann where class and social order puts two men who could have been best friends on opposite sides of the law. Also, like a less literal version of the split personalities of many of the characters in Twin Peaks and some of David Lynch’s later films, Luke and Avery could arguably be considered as light and dark versions of the same characters, although with each containing several shades of grey. Their duality in narrative terms is even more interesting and in the film’s most exhilarating scene, one character is seen from the point-of-view of the other, as if this character is seeing a projection – or an echo from the past – of his symbolic other self. It is like Special Agent Dale Cooper encountering his dark doppelgänger in Twin Peaks or perhaps David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) encountering aged versions of himself before becoming what he sees. The use of narrative structure in The Place Beyond the Pines lends itself to considering the characters in a way that goes beyond what literally happens to them onscreen.
Perhaps the reason the film concludes in a way that does not fulfil earlier expectations is because it breaks free from its contained and interwoven structure, encapsulated by the circular metal cage containing the three stunt riders performing for the audience. The symbolic dual-sided identity evolves into something else that does not feel as sophisticated as what has come before it. The morality themes remain, but the film ultimately focuses more on the role of the father and the question of fate. It is a good ending, but it does not live up to the expectation set up by the film’s earlier ambition.
Despite the film’s focus on male identity, at the centre of The Place Beyond the Pines is Eva Mendes’s Romina character who goes through continual hardship while the male characters wrestle with their conscience, desires and drives. A reoccurring image throughout the film is a photo of her, Luke and their son. Luke has his hand over her eyes as an act that can be read as both him protecting her from the fact that the illusion of their happy family life is temporary, or as an act that suggests how much he is hiding from her. Like the nightclub singer who is blinded by the shootout in John Woo’s The Killer (1989), Romina suffers as a result of the men around her and this suffering includes being kept figuratively in the dark.
On the surface a crime narrative with social realism characteristics, The Place Beyond the Pines delivers an unexpected narrative structure where the viewer is invited to link together various characters, motifs and narrative threads beyond the obvious connections. While it is still a rewarding film on face value, The Place Beyond the Pines offers additional pleasures for viewers keen to delve further. The final segment of the film does disappoint when it moves away from morality and identity to instead focus on the role of the father and fate, but it is nevertheless an overall bold and intriguing film.