Place Beyond the Pines
One might be tempted to say that after seeing this film what you’ll want to be is a good parent – being there for you child, so he doesn’t go astray – but this isn’t really foremost what this film communicates. Instead, it is really more about automatizing, exerting yourself against the pull of others, and experiencing how your self-assertion forces others to adjust to your insistent sense of purpose.
We encounter Ryan Gosling’s Luke as he is about to take part in a circus act, where he spins about in a circle cage, intertwining his motorbike with two others in angry-bee-but-still-beautiful kaleidoscope patterns. The camera doesn’t enter the cage with him; we stop short outside – but however fantastic an ability he has as a performer we get that this is a skill one can acquire eventually, if bike-riding is your natural bent. In short, there’s no adventure in it for him, however much it does require a moment of “steadying” before going on. There is no real adventure to any part of his life – until he learns he has a child, and the fuzzy outlines of a new and exciting acquisition and self-narrative – being a parent and exploring life with a child; being the parent he ought to have had – tease into view. He becomes the willful child who won’t oblige what others expect of him – he quits his job, despite contract obligations, his boss telling him he can’t quit – and is beginning to intrude himself into the life of the mother of his child regardless of how obviously strongly paired she is with her new lover, who’s not charisma, but a dependable provider and a dependable partner in this landscape of frightful people-indifference, poverty and uncertainty. His end-goal really is impossible regardless, it turns out, but he can’t quite know it at the time, as it still is just maybe something accomplishable if he begins the adventure of acquiring an even more risky skill – bank-robbing – which could also involve his own death if he failed even just once, but which opens up otherwise unavailable wealth--“magic” to acquire what is otherwise beyond him. The rush he gets from actually carrying out successful heists lends him the brass authority to put together a crib he purchased for his child in his rival’s home, however certain this moment of macho-assertion would lead him out of his family’s life. But before he’s firmly out of her life, he does winnow a family together for a short while, earns himself a proprietorial sense of family – which a photo, which, appropriately, lasts and lasts, captures.
We are supposed to believe that when police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) shoots and kills Luke, he ended the life of someone else’s father. But this truth is undermined because we know Luke was pretty much played out anyhow – there was no future for him; he was someone who lived a lot in his short time, owing to his balls. So really the effect of all Avery’s muddling over the moment plays out more as him pausing on exactly how self-determining he is at this point in his life. He became a police officer, it is made to seem, owing in part as a passive-resistant way of telling his father to fuck the hell off and let him lead his own life. His assessment of his police work, of his fellow officers, seems in good part determined by who they must be to make himself seem part of a different – more pure, simple and less compromised – world than the one his father belongs to. This illusion can’t hold up; and very soon it becomes apparent that this new world he’s lent himself to is just as ready to make use of him for its compromised purposes. There is a moment of self-actualization, of conviction, when he spins his car around and balks his police officer “buddies” to engage with his father once again. In teeth of other’s willful expectations, he does what he wants to do, and the film makes it seem as if everything else is presumable after that: he’ll be someone who upsets others expectations (Just as Luke was on the right path when before his boss he essentially spits in his face and quits, here Avery is on the right path when he forces the attorney general to accept his terms, regardless of how much this pisses him off), but who successfully accomplishes his goals and has others adjust to him. He decision to rat out a corrupt police force is shown to mean depriving sons the company of fathers they need, as they are jailed, longterm, and therefore out of their sons’ lives for the their whole teenage lives, but there’s more a sense here of the thrill of how one person’s decision, of how possibly “your” decisions, can create a wake around you and force others to change their life courses, even drastically, regardless of their curses and vituperate anger, their insistence that you are the one who is going to have to bend, not them.
Luke’s son actually does seem to have a good father. He’s shown to be a regular family presence, and there for his son in times of stress. But the film, rather than show the importance of this, shows it as meaning little but a challenge. How do you tell two reasonably good parents that they aren’t going to get to affect how you choose your life? That his mother lied to him about Luke comes across as an excuse for the boy to use to commit an act of matricide – the letter to “mom” which informs her he knows she lied. And I guess his father actually not being a Darth Vader – he at one point encourages his son to see him as his true father by saying, “Luke, I am your father!” – but rather more like the dependable, non-descript uncle in Star Wars who gets burned to death without anyone much caring, is hardly shown to require any refuting at all – there’s no authority there to balk, just a perpetually standing place-holder. The son steals, does drugs, and nearly kills two people, but all this is shown as the sort of wild acting out that might be required for him to shake off other’s expectations and ready assessments of him, so at the finish he could plausibly be a fully self-automatizing individual, heading off fully free into his own future.