Humanizing the Victims of Violence in Film
The task of the artist is to convey truth, in all its beauty, ugliness, and harshness, to paraphrase Nietzsche. The truth about humanity is often an ugly thing. We kill. We abandon. We destroy. Too many films glorify such things. A rare few appear to critique them, even as they glorify them, as Tarantino arguably often does. Fortunately, there are exceptions that critique while refusing to glorify violence and its consequences.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) depicts the parallel and sometimes intersecting lives of a cop and a criminal in a small town in upstate New York. With equal attention to both protagonists, one on each side of that equation, the film stands alongside Heat (1995) and The Departed (2006). Like those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines is a high caliber action-drama, tightly plotted, tautly suspenseful, and rife with moral ambiguity; but unlike those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines excels in depicting the emotional toll of violence on its victims, on its perpetrators, and on those around them.
Luke (played by Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcycle rider in a circus. When the show stops in Schedectady (which literally means “The Place Beyond the Pines”), he encounters Romina (played by Eva Mendez), a young waitress with whom he had a one night stand the last time the circus passed through town. After giving her a ride home, he discovers that she now has a son and that the son is his. By the next day, Luke has decided to quit the circus and stay in town, never mind the protests of Romina and her current boyfriend. Luke does not want his son to grow up like he did, not knowing his father and ending up a screw-up. Jobless and homeless, owning nothing besides his bike, Luke falls in with Robin, an alcoholic autoshop owner and former bank robber. He hires Luke for minimum wage and lets him sleep in a trashy trailer out back. After recognizing that they are kindred spirits in desperate need of cash, Robin convinces Luke that they can rob banks together. Luke will grab the cash from the tellers and Robin will be waiting a few blocks away with the tailgate of his delivery truck down, waiting for Luke to ride his bike in, so they can both escape to safety.
From the previews, a viewer might expect the entirety of the movie to consist primarily of Ryan Gosling burning rubber and having hot times with Eva Mendez. Nothing could be further from the truth. (*Spoiler alert.*) Romina (Mendez) begins the movie looking as if the joy is being crushed from her life and steadily progresses downhill from there in the few scenes in which she appears. Luke (Gosling) is dead by the middle of the movie. Luke perpetrates violence. He physically and Romina emotionally end up as its victims.
After botching his final heist, Luke is corned by the police and makes a frantic phone call to Romina, to say goodbye and to plead with her not to tell their son what kind of man he was. When a police officer, Avery (Bradley Cooper), breaks down the door after repeatedly asking him to put down his weapon, both Luke and Avery fire. Luke goes to the morgue. Avery ends up in the hospital, scarred as much by the phone call he overheard as by the bullet that almost killed him. He knows that he made a child fatherless, a child the same age as his own son.
Avery spends the better part of the following months discovering who Luke was. His cop buddies dub Avery a hero who gunned down a “bad guy.” But from the outset, Avery say Luke as something more, something radically different: an alternate version of himself. Before he died, Luke gave Romina a bag of stolen cash by her car outside of her restaurant. Avery’s cop buddies “reclaim” the cash on Avery’s behalf in an unwarranted search. Avery attempts to return the same cash to Romina in the same bag at the same place. Like Luke, he only wants to help, but he only ends up hurting her instead.
Who truly fights for what is right? Luke and Avery were both doing what they thought they needed to do. Who are the criminals? The crooked cops who attempt to steal cash from criminals as “hazard pay” for the wounded hero occupy the moral shadows of the story. Neither their motives nor their methods are clean. And yet when Avery takes them down, he does so primarily out of self-preservation rather than out of moral indignation. By the time he is running for District Attorney fifteen years later, he himself is bending and breaking rules to protect those whom he loves. This includes his own son, who is on the fast-track to prison and/or rehab at best, and who is dragging Luke’s son down with him. Never mind that Avery’s work as de facto made his own son almost as fatherless and Luke’s. Romina struggles and ultimately fails to shield her son from his father’s legacy. History does not entirely repeat itself, but it does echo loudly into the present, reminding viewers that the past is never truly past.
Those who break the laws and those who uphold them: we are all brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, caught up in the same human family of desperation, desire, misplaced hope, and self-defeating gestures of goodwill. The Place Beyond the Pines is haunting, beautiful, and rings true. If combining the visual and musical aesthetics of Terrence Malik with the plotting and inter-character conflict of Martin Scorsese sounds appealing, this is not a film to quickly dismiss. It doubtless owes much of its unpopularity to its weightiness. However underrated and overlooked, The Place Beyond the Pines promises to leave a lasting legacy.