Globes of Death
My parents were awesome, but it wasn’t like we were sitting around smiling all the time. And I felt it so false to me that we would just be smiling for these pictures. And so as a kid, I used to always try to take pictures of people fighting.
The Place Beyond the Pines begins with breathing. The screen is dark, the sound uneven but not strained, soon slipped into other sounds—fairground music, grinding rides, voices—as the screen opens onto Ryan Gosling’s torso. It’s hard and tattooed, the frame slashed by his fast-moving angel blade. The take goes on for three or four minutes, uncut, as Gosling’s daredevil motorcycle rider, Luke, makes his way out of his carnival trailer to the tent where he performs inside the Globe of Death.
The camera hovers over Luke’s shoulders as he walks, so you don’t see his face, only his muscled shoulders, the sleeveless Metallica t-shirt he puts on, and then the black leather jacket, of course. As he walks, fans make themselves known, shaking their fists and smiling or roaring. He’s the star of this show, which he performs with two other riders, going fast, inside a big ball with two other riders, and he acts like it. Inside—his trailer, the tent, the ball, his helmet—Luke looks supremely cool and confident. Outside, where he steps after the show is done, he looks less so.
It’s at this moment, early in the movie, that Luke is approached by Romina (Eva Mendes). They exchange brief, barely-there smiles, and as Luke draws on his cigarette, the camera frames her face, faintly colored by fairground lights. “Do you remember my name?” she asks.
In fact, he does, though it’s clear enough that he’s been a disappointing and uncommunicative ex-lover (“You never called, you never wrote”). Intrigued by her seeming lack of interest in resuming whatever they once had (“I just wanted to see you again”), Luke discovers she has a baby, his baby. When Luke suggests the child is reason for a more lasting reunion, Romina puts him off: “I have someone,” she says, meaning Kofi (Mahershala Ali). Unable to comprehend his loss, and most especially his lack of control, Luke persists: he quits his carnival job, shows up at the diner where Romina works as well as at Kofi’s house, where she lives, with her son and her mother (Olga Merediz), and does his best to convince her that he will be a good father, that he can support the family - unlike his own absent father.
So here it is. Troubled father-son dynamics are everywhere in The Place Beyond the Pines, starting with that breathing, breathing that may or may not recall that most notorious absent father from George Lucas’ low-grade-fever dream, but that certainly underlines the notion of absence. The significantly named Luke acts on this notion repeatedly, deciding to go along with the scheme proposed by his new employer, a mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), to rob banks. As well as Robin reads his new partner—who gets off on the adrenalin of waving a gun inside the bank and then zooming off on his bike—Luke doesn’t quite have a force with him.
Instead, Luke’s hectic trajectory takes him directly into the path of another risk taker, a beat cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper). Their encounter ends badly, not least because Avery also has a backstory that concerns his father, in his case the over-present Al (Harris Yulin), a retired judge who hardly hides his disappointment that Avery has chosen the police academy over law school. As the two young men clash, the specters of their fathers (and father figures, like the cruel veteran cop played by Ray Liotta), seen and unseen, shape them, shape their inability to see or avoid consequences.
The film pursues this theme, that fathers make their sons, and that consequences are inevitable, mostly predictable, if not always logical with a kind of insular relentlessness. For it’s not only Luke and Avery who must confront one another, but their sons as well, in a third chapter (if Luke’s story is the first and Avery’s the second). Here Romina’s baby, Jason, grows up to be played by Dane DeHaan, and Avery too has a son of similar age, AJ (Emory Cohen, weighed down with a goofy white-boy-gangsta shtick): when the boys meet in high school, they are first unconscious of their links by lineage, and so they can’t know what you do, that each of their interactions is a bad idea.
This isn’t to say that their decisions are irreversible, that they’re caught up in their own versions of the Globe of Death, exactly. But The Place Beyond the Pines insists on the difficulty of finding exits. This has to do with boys posing, with girls yearning, and especially with fathers determining. The camera repeatedly and quite gorgeously reveals the appealing thrill of speed and the harrowing effects of living too hard inside oneself: shots of frustrated faces and burdened shoulders, limited perspectives and closed spaces, suggest just how hard it is to see out, while acrobatic turns hint at the fear that drives forward motion. The story represented in these often brilliant images, however, is one you know too well.