We open to darkness and breathing. Then a man, pacing, flashing a switchblade. He stops, trades the knife for a coat, and leaves the room. We follow him through a noisy amusement park. Rides and lights glitter around him. People brush past. The man enters a tent as we hear his name announced. He mounts a motorcycle, his face clear for the first time. A tattoo of a knife rests under his left eye. The man drives his bike into a cage and rides around in circles. Welcome to the best movie of 2013.
The Place Beyond the Pines is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also helmed one of the best movies of 2010 – Blue Valentine. He is a gifted filmmaker with an acute understanding of character and emotion. If there’s a right way to make movies, this is it.
Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a worldly man who works the night shift as a carny. One night, Luke bumps into an old fling named Romina. Romina has a son, and the son is his. Everything changes for Luke in a moment. He wants to provide and be a father. But Romina already has a boyfriend, and Luke is no nine to fiver. He has a unique skill set, and it’s not long before he turns to unsavory means to make a buck. This sets in motion a chain reaction that ripples through an entire generation with no one left unscathed.
The Making of a Masterpiece
Ryan Gosling is one of the best actors working today. Look no further than Pines for proof. This is an electrifying performance. His eyes are what glue us. Gosling isn’t known for epic transformations, but those eyes change with every character. In Pines, they’re a window to a damaged soul.
In a scene early on, Luke walks into a church and sits near the back, tattooed and dirty, and watches his infant son be baptized. Another man holds his son. Another man stands in his place because of the choices he’s made. Tears slide down Luke’s face across the imprint of the knife. He deserves this fate. This is a man who tears through relationships like grass beneath his motorcycle. He cries, but does he truly want to change?
Gosling isn’t the only actor with impressive chops. Bradley Cooper proves his worth too as rookie cop Avery Cross. Cooper has always been more than charisma and good looks. He can play an A-Team action hero in his sleep, but Cooper’s film choices show a desire for complex characters. On the surface, Avery is the good guy. But in the world of Pines, the line between good and bad is a fuzzy one.
That’s the complexity Cianfrance brings to the table. Hollywood likes clear divides between good and evil, but Cianfrance understands the toxic mix inside all of us. His expert fingerprints guide each frame. This is a director with attention to detail. Take his choice in music – deep, eerie soundscapes dominate even the most mundane scenes. Why? Because every choice we make has consequences. This is the principle theme of the film and, like a true mise en scène artist, Cianfrance captures this truth in every word, shot, and sound.
Sin is Relational
People don’t like to talk about sin these days. But if Jesus wasn’t afraid to talk about it, why should we be? The Bible demands that we take sin seriously and crucify it in every part of our lives. An appropriate question is why? Why is sin so deadly?
Sin is deadly because sin is relational. It chokes our relationship with God and our relationships with others. It’s a cancer that cuts off all pathways to selflessness, love, joy, and peace. Left unchecked, sin will destroy us and everything we hold dear.
We like to pretend sin is a private act – that if I look at porn, for instance, I’m the only one affected. But what about the person I’m objectifying through my clicks? What about my spouse I’m now comparing to internet sex stars? What about my kids who are losing me to an addiction? Sin always affects those around us, whether we realize it or not. The choices we make aren’t isolated; their consequences linger on for generations.
This is the central truth of Pines. The minute Luke learns of his son, he’s faced with choices. Those choices collide with Avery, and the ripple effect of their collision changes two families forever. The effects on their sons stands out most as we see the young men they become. The sins of their fathers hang over their lives like a heavy fog.
I’ll never forget the shot of Luke holding his infant son close to his chest. He’s just done something rash. Sirens sound in the distance. Yet, this baby is innocent. He has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t know who this man is that’s holding him and how his actions will determine the rest of his life.
That’s the power of Pines. I think of my own father. I think of my own sons. Our choices matter. What will we choose today?
The Place Beyond the Pines
“The place beyond the pines” is the Native American meaning of the city “Schenectady” where the story take place. The title has a double meaning though. The thick forest of pines that surround Schenectady is the place where the characters bury their secrets, where their sins echo on forever.
Sin isn’t an outdated concept. We all fall short every day, and the mistakes we make hurt us and the ones we love. But sin doesn’t have the final word. There is a path through the woods. There is a place where our choices no longer define us and our past is washed away. As we follow the footprints of Jesus, there is freedom beyond the pines.