Motorcycle Emptiness
By Adam Nayman

The Place Beyond the Pines
Dir. Derek Cianfrance, U.S., Focus Features

[The following review contains plot spoilers.]

Has Ryan Gosling become the least surprising actor in American movies? Notwithstanding his post-Mouseketeer breakthrough as a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer, the chiseled Ontarian has steadily blanched out his actorly palette; at this point he’s cornered the market on blankness. This pale-rider quality was built into the hero-without-a-name conceit of Drive, which photographed its star like an impassive religious icon—or maybe a designer hood ornament—but even when cast as a silver-tongued charmer in Crazy, Stupid, Love or a hard-driving spin doctor in The Ides of March, Gosling has practiced the sort of acting in which slow-burning intensity is indistinguishable from catatonic paralysis. Either way, he doesn’t appear to be lifting a finger.

The exception to this tendency was writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, which gave Gosling plenty of chances to stamp, holler, and run his hands through an artificially thinned hairline as a house painter whose marriage to his high school sweetheart (Michelle Williams) is falling apart. Blue Valentine was spacious as an actor’s showcase, despite the film’s ironclad formal structure, which was to regularly juxtapose the happy beginning of its central couple’s courtship with its painful death throes—a quasi-Pinteresque conceit that generated precisely the sort of prefab pathos it was designed for. But it also exposed Cianfrance as a filmmaker who thinks in short cuts. By toggling between idealized scenes of naïve puppy love and long calcified regret and resentment, he surely meant to provide a well-rounded portrait of a troubled marriage, but the movie felt more like a hybrid highlight/blooper reel—a network of raw nerves in search of connective tissue.

Cianfrance’s new drama, The Place Beyond the Pines, tries both tacks with its star, casting him in a part that’s eerily similar to his Drive cipher—he’s a taciturn gear-head who worships his motorcycle rather than his racecar—while also hypothetically affording him the opportunity to flex his thespian muscles. Introduced striding purposefully through the fairground where he plies his death-defying trade as a stunt cyclist, Gosling’s “Handsome” Luke Glanton is the proverbial bad boy with a heart of (fool’s) gold; after learning that the sexy townie (Eva Mendes) he’d slept with during his troupe’s last annual visit has quietly given birth to his son, he resolves to change his ways and become a dependable dad, though he doesn’t seem to own any clothing other than the t-shirts he always wears inside-out.

That this plan eventually involves picking up gigs as a bank robber suggests that Luke’s ideas about maturity have a decidedly adolescent tinge, and if The Place Beyond the Pines has a theme—answer: yes, yes it does—it’s the struggle to distinguish between different models of masculinity. Luke’s fears about setting a bad example for his young son turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but where Gosling’s anguish about doing badly by his young daughter in Blue Valentine was that movie’s most affecting feature, here the actor seems locked into a caricatured pantomime of paternity. Regarding his son with that ice-blue thousand-yard stare, Luke might be trying to see whether there’s any of him in there or Gosling might be trying to remember his lines (although, as in Drive, he’s been given a bare minimum of dialogue).

The mouth-breathing exertions of a moody misfit to impress his baby mama and prove he’s not a loser makes for a pretty thin feature film, but Cianfrance has conceived his sophomore effort as an epic. It’s impossible to discuss The Place Beyond the Pines in any detail without revealing that it’s really three movies in one (building upon Blue Valentine’s entwined-twofer gimmick), abruptly tossing the narrative baton from Luke to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie beat cop who ends up wrestling with a similar kind of fatherly anxiety but from a more privileged vantage point. The pampered son of a New York political power player (Harris Yulin), Avery struggles to reconcile his newly minted hero status after fatally plugging Luke during a getaway attempt with his guilt over killing a man whose son is the same age as his own—and in case the viewer is slow to pick up on this parallel, the screenplay (by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder) reiterates it with such regularity that the dialogue track sounds like it’s skipping.

If the first segment of The Place Beyond the Pines is merely dramatically unconvincing and borderline campy—peaking when Luke’s grease-stained, squirrel-eyed accomplice (Ben Mendelsohn) warns him sagely that “when you ride like lightning, you crash like thunder”—it’s the middle segment that begins to give a true indication of just how pretentious a register Cianfrance is working in. Avery’s pitched battle against a group of corrupt cops in his department (including an inevitably cast but admittedly amusing Ray Liotta) is developed erratically because the filmmakers are stressing the subtext: here, no less than Luke, is a man whose reckless behavior in pursuit of macho idealism will place him and his loved ones in peril. Cooper manages to give a good, understated performance in this section, but it’s hard to invest in anything that’s going on when it’s clear that the movie is just marking time until it can make good on all of its ominous foreshadowing and show us whether its protagonists’ attempts to do right by their progeny will pay off in the future.

So suddenly it’s fifteen years later and Luke and Avery’s sons are classmates at a suburban high school; initially oblivious to each other’s identities, they’re bound by fate—acting on behalf of three shameless screenwriters—to crash into each other in the same manner as their fathers. The young actors cast in these roles should have gotten hazard pay for these scenes, although Emory Cohen, as Avery Junior, has nobody to blame but himself for his dopey, neo-Sweathog performance (he looks a bit like a young John Travolta, with the high lilting voice replaced by thick wigger mush-mouth). Cianfrance’s tactic of disguising deterministic plotting with tentatively inarticulate dialogue is in full effect here, but no amount of aimless, sub–Larry Clark teen-speak can obviate the obviousness of what’s really going on. As in Ramin Bahrani’s forthcoming At Any Price, the film’s sins grow more egregious as its thrust becomes more Biblical, culminating in a modern-dress Cain and Abel scenario that somehow manages to sideswipe the work of two fraternal filmmaking duos—an unlikely amalgam of the Dardennes’ The Son and the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing that does these possible inspirations a great disservice.

The Place Beyond the Pines’ surface deficiencies—its ponderous yet erratic pacing; its earnest confusion of archetype and cliché; Gosling’s posturing performance—are so abundant that it doesn’t feel necessary for me to delve into some of its deeper problems, which, as other critics have pointed out, include a dismissive attitude towards its female characters. Without taking this too far, it’s perhaps instructive to contrast Eva Mendes’ thankless work here—sobbing at Luke about his various violent transgressions and then popping up in unflattering middle-aged drag as the story shoots forward—with her performance in James Gray’s We Own the Night, a film that might have influenced The Place Beyond the Pines, what with its deeply entrenched concerns about the perils of patriarchy and the compromised ethical hierarchies of New York state police departments. Playing nightclub hustler Bobby Green’s (Joaquin Phoenix) girlfriend Amada, Mendes throws the requisite starlet shapes, yet when this alert, attractive, affectionate, and fiercely loyal character is for all intents and purposes rejected by her boyfriend out of deference to his brother (and the family’s connection to the NYPD) her skepticism and hurt take over the movie. Amada’s absence in the last passages of We Own the Night is palpable, prefigured by a great inverted Godfather reference where she literally closes the door on Bobby, whose obsession with “going straight”—and straight into the straitjacket of police duty—has turned him from a sensualist into a cipher. We Own the Night is genuinely ambivalent about heroism and machismo, and builds to a conclusion that’s devastatingly double-sided: an affirmation of one kind of love that’s also a rejection of might be a much deeper form of fulfillment.

The Place Beyond the Pines is ambiguous in a different way. It’s not so much that the ending opens up to multiple readings as it is that the viewer has to make a choice about the exact nature of the film’s overall failure. Either Cianfrance and his collaborators have made a hapless, earnest but confused movie that, in its final moments, ends up valorizing and sentimentalizing the kind of reckless, rebel-without-a-clue behavior that has only had tragic consequences thus far, or else the vindication of boys-and-their-toys fantasies was the project’s entire raison d’être in the first place. It’s hard to say which choice would reflect better on the filmmakers. It may be that in their attempts to have it both ways—to couch a mythic epic in hardscrabble working-class textures; to have not one but two photogenically conflicted movie star protagonists; to attempt an unholy, Faith No More–scored amalgam of Luchino Visconti and Ben Affleck (Rocco and his Brothers by way of The Town)—they’ve made a movie with the same reckless, kamikaze spirit as Handsome Luke himself. And when you ride like lightning…