The books that meant the most to me as a kid were the ones where, once I put them down, I’d feel a sadness at having left their characters behind. I remember closing White Fang and feeling a sadness I’d never felt before. I can’t remember how young I was, but it was profound to miss a dog who didn’t even exist. Little did I know I was practicing for the first time one of the most defining feelings of a person’s life.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a film that meanders like an 800-page novel, with the details of entire generations of lives laid bare. Its first act concerns motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling). He performs in a traveling carnival, but settles down when he discovers one of his girls in port, Romina (Eva Mendes), has a baby son. It’s his, and even though Romina is in a relationship with someone else, Luke wants to be a part of his child’s life. Luke has no prospects, however, and is talked into taking advantage of his unique skills by robbing banks.
The second act follows rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper). You can imagine how he and Luke encounter each other. Like Luke, Avery has a baby son. Avery comes from privilege, however, and even if he lacks the foresight, his father Al (Harris Yulan) will make sure that Avery’s track takes him into politics. To reveal too much about Avery’s plot would be to spoil some hard, left turns the film takes.
The third act follows Luke’s and Avery’s sons, 15 years later. Of how they meet or what transpires afterward, I won’t say anything else. The results are a mix of tragedy and hope.
The Place Beyond the Pines is about the cycle of violence, the reality that drives the hopeless toward crime and the privileged to idolize it. It’s about the inevitable corruption that growing older has on the ideals of our younger selves and it’s about those beautiful moments that stay in our hearts forever, that let us survive the worst that life comes to throw at us. It’s about forgiveness, vengeance, struggle and honesty. It’s about the first time we share something special with a loved one, intending to repeat it for the rest of our lives and never getting to. It’s about how quickly we leave our dreams behind for what’s practical or what others expect of us. It’s about more than any single movie I may have ever seen before. How it fits its story into two hours and 20 minutes is beyond me.
2013 was awash in impossible movies – the relentlessness and importance of 12 Years a Slave, the technical splendor and intensity of Gravity, the outsized antics of American Hustle, the absurdity of Spring Breakers. No film may be more impossible than The Place Beyond the Pines, however. It has no camera tricks you haven’t seen before and it isn’t outlandish in any way. Its characters aren’t nearly as likeable as those other films’. Instead, writer-director Derek Cianfrance tells a human story, and weaves it together with another human story and another and another into something that, once the credits roll, makes you yearn for just one more moment to watch those characters exist.
When the movie was done, and I got up to pull the DVD, it was 1:30 a.m., it was snowing outside, and I could do nothing more than lean back against the wall and miss those characters a long moment. I’d spent the week caring for a very sick pet whom I hope is on the mend, and putting things in place for projects I’d like to do later in the year, once New England thaws out. It had been the latest of many stressful weeks, but I was reminded that the week of stress is just one of many things that shapes us. We have a habit of looking at photographs of times past, of a day at the beach with an ex, of a grandmother you never got to know, of cheesy family vacation photos when everyone was wearing 90s haircuts, and we do it to yearn, to repeat in our minds the echo of a moment we can never repeat, or to play out in our minds the possibilities of paths not taken.
The Place Beyond the Pines, when all is said and done, has much the same effect. We look at its characters at the end, and we know where those paths went, how they got to the place they are, and we understand so deeply that feeling of nostalgia, of contemplation, of playing pretend with an echo in our heads. This is what The Place Beyond the Pines is, beyond a crime thriller and a chase scene and domestic drama and love story. It’s that moment of closing a book, of looking at a photo. It is regret and acceptance and the strange feeling of possibility into which they somehow translate. This is a brave, unprecedented narrative, by turns exciting, cold, languorous, intense, heated, inscrutable, and heartbreaking. This is lives trapped in amber. This is the film of the year.