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Ryan Gosling doesn’t star in this movie, he haunts it.

I actually saw The Place Beyond the Pines before the last two movies I reviewed (Evil Dead and Oblivion) but it’s taken me a lot longer to conjure a review. This is partly because I wanted to like this one more than I did. It’s also because, whether it works for you or not, The Place Beyond the Pines is one you have to sit with for a while. It’s thematically dense and takes itself very seriously. It mostly succeeds in expressing its themes effectively and leaving the audience with the semi-melancholy feeling that pervades it. That said, the structure undermines the movie and it seems like they should have presented it for what it is rather than hiding its generational scope behind the promise of its leads doing impressive dramatic work, which they do.

Overall, The Place Beyond the Pines is hampered by the conceits that don’t work. On a deeper level, though, it’s a movie that should connect strongly on the strength of its essential theme: what sons inherit from their fathers, good and bad. I think that The Place Beyond the Pines is probably a more enjoyable experience if you know about the plot and a pretty major character death before actually seeing it. Without this knowledge, the feeling is that Pines is trying to be surprising and it ends up feeling frustrating instead. Because of this, I won’t caution you to avoid spoilers on this movie unless you are just fundamentally against them on principle. With this opening scrawl, I’ve respected that as usual but I will be including spoilers in the main text of the review.

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Luke Ganton walks a fine line with audience sympathy.

Luke is a traveling motorcycle stuntman covered in the kinds of random, awful looking tattoos that instantly make a person off-putting. He looks like a hesher, dresses in the same dirty moth-eaten clothes all the time, and chain-smokes cigarettes like the modern caricature of the Lone Rebel that he is. Ganton is not self-aware enough to know what model of masculinity he’s adopted, but the movie wants us to be very much aware of it. Part of the point of Pines is using these models and deconstructing them. The intellectual value of the film is in how well it pulls this off. What undermines Luke’s fringe exterior is the existence of a son.

On a roll through Schenectady, NY some time ago, he had a fling with Romina (Eva Mendez) and she became pregnant. When he finds out, Luke quits the life he’s seemingly satisfied with and begins to exist in the gray and fuzzy place between a familiar archetype and something more human and unpredictable. Gosling imbues the character with a reserved edginess, the same feel he gave his character in Driver. This is only appropriate given that both movies are dealing with the same archetype and approaching deconstruction from different places. Unlike the Driver, Luke quickly loses control of his cultivated aura of cool and “don’t give no fucks”. He becomes almost creepily desperate to build some kind of domestic life with Romina and their son. Meanwhile, Romina has a fella but this doesn’t seem to stop either of them. The romance of the idea is what snares her, while Luke quietly self-destructs trying to live up to some kind of fever-dream he has about their future.

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This is a beautifully shot movie, by the way.

Luke hooks up with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a man who is like him but maybe fifteen years older. Robin tells Luke how easy it is to rob banks and away they go. Robbing banks to make enough money for his new family is exactly the kind of romantic masculine fantasy that appeals to Luke. His entire manner revolves around that model he’s trying so hard to follow. His possessiveness, his desperation, and his delusion all make him a bit threatening to the viewer. At the same time, his vulnerability and commitment endear him to us, making us see the man beneath the image. There’s no doubt he actually loves his son and wants to be a good father, and it’s the journey between the want of the connection and the responsibility of the relationship that is thematically important. For the whole film, too, not just for Luke. It’s a sentiment that echoes in every fiber of it.

Luke’s trajectory is quickly overpowered by his inability to control the variables. Robin’s caution or Romina’s unwillingness to let go of Kofi (Mahershala Ali), the more stable man in her life. As we watch Luke do the robberies, we see how he wants to be powerful and commanding (he ignores Robin’s advice to be subtle) even as his voice breaks and he yells shrilly like a punk kid. This intensifies as he goes until finally, a domino cascade of small mistakes lead to his demise.

The fact that Luke dies about 45 minutes into the movie isn’t clear from the marketing. This in itself might not be an issue inherently (perhaps we shouldn’t even consider marketing, though it’s hard not to). It is one of the reasons I said knowing some “spoilers” beforehand might increase appreciation for the movie, though. I mean, up until this point it feels like Pines is about Luke Ganton trying to make do. Instead, the first third of the movie is like a mini-movie about that. It’s familiar in some ways, but it’s really there to service the overarching theme. As Luke dies, we switch to the man who killed him.

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Bradley Cooper gets the more difficult arc.

Cooper plays Avery, a rookie cop who happens to encounter Luke after his botched heist. Luke knows he’s going down and his last request is that Romina not tell Jason, their son, about him. This follows from an earlier scene where he sheds tears in a church. It’s the culmination of Luke realizing that the fantasy is a fantasy and that he actually is zero good for his son and Romina. He lets Avery kill him, it seems like, but they really shoot each other in an almost comically authentic moment of confusion and instinctive violence.

Afterward, Avery is a reluctant hero to his department. The problem is that his friends want him to help them be dirty cops easier. Avery feels like a good man who wants to do right, but his father encourages him to be political. Avery is obviously a smart guy and at first we like him because he seems straightforward, ethical, and brave. Like Luke, however, this is a man who is living up to a model. When the facade slips away, he’s every bit as corrupt and tactical as Ray Liotta (playing cop #816) or his crew. More dangerous, too, because Avery is smart enough to negotiate himself into positions of power. You’re meant to notice the influence of his father and contrast this with the lack thereof in Luke’s case. Both men want to be men and have different ways of doing that.

Where the film flirts with quiet brilliance is in its strokes of connection between Avery and Luke. Avery feels it pretty heavily until the turning point where he abandons his upright model for a less sterling true self. At the same time, he “gives up the ghost” of Luke Ganton. In one scene, he tries to give Romina back the money that Luke had given her earlier. His words are echoes of Luke’s and Romina’s rebuff basically functions as a symbolic end to Avery’s fantasy of masculine responsibility.

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Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen are very good.

The last third of the movie takes place fifteen fucking years later. I don’t think most people watching it understood that it was going to spend significant time on the “next generation”. This is also where the film’s tripartite structure works against it. If Luke’s portion was a mini-movie using the familiar tropes of the tragic criminal, then Avery’s was a mini-movie of the cop tempted by corruption. The third unexpected movie is the legacy of these fathers on their teenage sons. As unlikely as it seems, and the contrivances will bother some people, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) become friends. In spite of Avery’s efforts to keep them apart, they circle each other as the audience sits back and waits for Jason to realize who AJ’s father is.

AJ’s model of masculinity is inspired by Jersey Shore. He has a fake accent, a gross tattoo that says “Arrogance” and basically acts like somebody’s idea of a joke. But, thanks to his father, he’s a rich kid and he’s also big and handsome so he gets away with his schtick. Jason, meanwhile, is a smaller more broody kid. He’s one foot into a bad path and has connections to drug dealers which AJ can exploit. They don’t ever quite become “real” friends, but there’s a weird sense that AJ sort of wants them to be. Jason hasn’t really developed an identity for himself yet and you can feel the tension of the absent father he knows almost nothing about. For AJ, not being the white collar prick his dad is seems pretty important. For Jason, it’s about figuring out who Luke Ganton was. As he does so, the film becomes about yet another romantic model and makes a clear statement about how these things get passed on generation to generation.

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He should be in everything, this kid is that good.

Jason wants to be like his dad. He’s a romantic, and thinks his criminal dad was a badass. When he finds out that it’s AJ’s dad who killed him, he doesn’t bother to think about how it happened or why. He’s too angry, confused, and lost to even care that Luke may not have ever given Avery a choice or that Avery was, by and large, just doing his job. Of course, there are shades of gray in all that, but in no way is Jason justified in seeking revenge against Avery. Instead, he’s trying to live up to the badass fantasy of the vengeful son.

Like all the other false paradigms of masculinity explored in this film, Jason’s model is undermined by real emotion. Avery, prick though he has become, is only worried about AJ. As Jason kneels him down in the pines presumably to kill him, Avery doesn’t beg for his life. Instead, he asks after his son’s and he tells Jason that he’s sorry. This crystallizes the difference in the lives of sons who have fathers, and sons who don’t, sons with bad fathers who have good intentions, and sons who don’t have fathers at all. It also is the point at which Avery finally shifts to a truer mode. If it can be said that his corrupt, political guise is just another model of manhood he’s following (his father’s example) then this is when he finally breaks down to what’s important and really acts like a man.

Jason, meanwhile, breaks the cycle that could almost start here while committing to its repetition. He spares Avery but strikes out on his own, buying a motorcycle and riding it off into the distance chasing his father’s ghost.

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This scene busted me up. Super tense and emotional.

As much as you’re thrown by the contrivances and by the movie’s structure (it takes a few minutes to realize that the Jason/AJ stuff isn’t an epilogue but a whole third chapter), there’s no denying that there’s something in the emotional substance of the movie that really works. I didn’t find it profound, though perhaps it wanted to be, but it certainly flirts with profundity. I do think this will be more accessible to men, but paradoxically men are brought up with a lot of difficulty lowering the barriers that prevent them from being genuinely emotionally affected by something as penetrating as The Place Beyond the Pines.

There’s a lot of bias toward the subject matter and the narrative/thematic threads in this review. I usually am fairly biased toward narrative matters when doing the critic thing. I think it would be easy to dismiss this movie for messily securing its own point, but I just can’t quite bring myself to be overly distressed by the structural conceit or the contrived plot devices. This is an ambitious film, trying really hard to reach for and grapple with a difficult, layered subject that almost seems doomed on the grounds of who it’s intended for. Men aren’t stereotypically good at the kind of reflection that Pines is asking us to do. However, there’s no veneer of badassery or cultivated cool to latch onto. Unlike Fight Club or The Grey,  there’s no chance of men confusing the deconstruction and critique of masculinity in Pines for an ode to macho individualism and physical violence.

I think this is precisely why this movie will not make much of an impact. I’d like to say it’s because of its structural weaknesses and the misdirection of its marketing, but I can’t. I really think it’s just going to confuse and/or bore most men who watch it. Especially the younger men for whom it is most important.

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