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A Movie of Symbolic Depth

Conor Mckeown

Derek Cianfrance dir.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Focus Features
19th April 2013

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As it will soon be leaving theatres, my hope is that you have already seen The Place Beyond the Pines and are therefore reading this as food for thought. Alternatively, you’re reading this to find out whether or not you should purchase the film when it is released on the usual plethora of formats in a few months time. If this is the case then I’ll start by saying that, quite simply, you absolutely should. The bottom line is that this is a great movie. It has been widely celebrated, receiving a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival (though it still needs to generate nearly $10 million in revenue to make back it’s budget).

All that aside, it is worth noting that although the acclaim for The Place Beyond the Pines has been widespread, it has by no means been unanimous. Several critics (professional and otherwise) have attacked the movie, expressing disappointment and even confusion at some of director Derek Cianfrance’s decisions. And it is these that I shall take as my point of departure. I won’t give away too much of the plot, or simply tell you that Ryan Gosling’s performance is great and move on—those reviews exist already. Instead I want to provide some brief analysis of, and insights into, a complex movie that deserves to be both watched and re-watched.

However, a very brief outline of the story is necessary: the film is divided into 3 chapters that chart the events of a small North American town. In chapter 1, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a small-time motorcycle stunt-driver and part of a travelling circus act, discovers he is a father. Events spiral: Gosling quits the circus, settles down in a trailer and begins robbing banks to support Romina (Eva Mendes) and his child. He gives Romina the money from the heists before getting in over his head in a high speed pursuit, a central scene that also introduces a determined rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper). Chapter 2 follows Avery’s entanglement with bent cops this heroic pursuit, and his subsequent brave, though self-serving exposé of these cops on his way to the top of the law ladder. Part 3 follows the sons of Luke and Avery as they find out who they are, navigate the torments of high school, and live out versions of their father’s legacies, with different aims, desires and conflicts.

Some have claimed that Place is superficially satisfying. I don’t believe this claim holds up under serious scrutiny, but the attention that such a comment draws to its visual objects and surface-level symbols does highlight key points that set this movie apart from much other contemporary cinema. The three chapters are all so intricately entwined the there are a number of neat ties and synergies between the various characters, across generations. The money given in the first chapter becomes a plot point in the second, Avery’s avarice in the second is echoed in the drive and psychological background of his son in the third, while Luke’s son’s search for his missing father ties the plot together, producing a cathartic and redemptive ending for the film as a whole.

This is not simply the functioning of reality, but rather operates on a deeper symbolic level, resembling the type of pathetic fallacy at work in gothic fiction. Nothing in the film is without purpose or import. Having spent many hours listening to Metallica in my youth, I was able to correctly identify the t-shirt Gosling (eventually) covers himself with in the spectacularly well choreographed opening sequence. Fittingly, the stunt driver is wearing a ‘ride the lightning’ t-shirt. This is later commented upon by one of Luke’s only friends in the movie, in a line that didn’t sit comfortably with me at the time. Yet, on reflection, this becomes just one example of the way in which Cianfrance has fused the world of Place with intent. Luke’s t-shirt functions in much the same way as the rain in Wuthering Heights: it echoes the mood of the central character. Everything in this universe is caught up in the overall narrative and thematic concern of the main plot—even the clothing delivers symbolic levels of characterisation.

In the end, the appreciation of this quality comes down to individual taste—the symbolically rich world of Place is not for everyone. If you were a fan of Gosling’s amoral character in Drive, the chances are you will find the underlying optimism and novelistic cohesion of this film somewhat tedious. If, however, you wished there had been some deeper human meaning beneath that otherwise sociopathic driver, Place might offer you the antidote to that nihilism. The film is not a prolonged art house meditation on one specific theme, nor is it an action movie pure and simple. It is a movie of great quality, well aware of the potential for storytelling in the cinematic medium. With a sharp polish it blends action, character and thematic depth. That it may not appeal to our generation’s dwindling attention span or desire for self-deconstructing narratives is not, as Cianfrance makes quite clear, this film’s problem.

Conor Mckeown read for an MA in St Andrews in 2012 and is currently completing an MPhil in Cambridge in Screen Media and Cultures.