My wife and I watched The Place Beyond the Pines a few weeks ago, and we’ve been talking and thinking about it ever since. It’s certainly one of the “darker” films to come along in a while, and if you’ve seen Derek Cianfrance’s other film, Blue Valentine, you know what I mean. One of Cianfrance’s main concerns as a director is honesty, and in order to get there, he clearly believes one must show the “darkness as well as the light.” With its dynamic plot, strong cast, and brutally powerful themes, PBP is a strong case in point.

Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman who–after discovering he has a baby boy by his ex-girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes)–quits his stuntman career and starts robbing banks. It’s a fast way to get cash, in hopes to become a family man provider type. The slippery slope (and some really cool bank robbing scenes) begins at this point in the film. 

Luke’s new identity as provider doesn’t persuade Romina to come back to him, and the rejection begins to eat him alive–reverting to control and violence as his way of relating to her and the boy. Upon the event of his last bank hit, Luke suddenly finds himself in a high-speed chase. Police officer, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) stalks him down, finally cornering him in a bedroom of a house a few blocks away from the place where Luke crashed his bike. Avery then shoots and kills the robber. Before the shootout scene, Avery’s presence in the narrative is utterly nonexistent–killing Luke Glanton in a children’s bedroom is the beginning of his identity as we, the viewers, know it.

The community celebrates Avery’s actions, regarding the killing as heroic and admirable. No matter where Avery goes, people regard him as the hero who killed the town’s most ruthless bank robber. For Avery, though, the killing is anything but admirable, precisely because of what news he discovers soon after the shootout: the man who he killed also has a baby boy. A profoundly significant moment occurs during this scene: Avery finds himself helping one of his fellow officers look for the money in Luke’s infant boy’s bed room. The officer forces Avery to hold the baby while he checks under the crib for the loot (which is in fact, there). Avery looks down at the little boy and is completely shaken by the reality that he is holding the son of the man whom he killed. Avery realizes his life will forever be haunted by this act. The “toxic shame”, as Cianfrance calls it, will prove to be truly inescapable. To be sure, this is the moment of the film, where the narrative becomes gripping and nerve-racking. In light of this scene, Avery’s shame carries significant weight.

aj and jasonOnce the boys grow up, AJ comes to live with his dad and the horror of the shootout begins to show its fangs all over again. AJ is an angry kid, beginning to dive deep into the drug scene, which brings him into contact–you guessed it–young Jason Glanton, son of Luke, who he quickly befriends. Talk about two paths colliding. When AJ gets arrested late one night, Avery goes to the jail to bail his son out and discovers who his druggy friend is–a sure moment in the film in which, coinciding with the crib scene, it becomes painfully clear that Avery’s “heroic act” refuses to be pushed under the table.

Though AJ and Jason’s friendship begins to get more complicated, the structure and pace of the film smoothes, given the chaotic context. Even still, viewers are to have no doubt that inevitable ending is on it’s way. Though it’s uncertain at this point of the film who will break, despair is right around the corner.

One wild drug-filled night at the Cross residence, Jason stumbles through the house and spots a portrait of Avery on the wall wearing his police uniform (which is the exact photo in the newspaper announcing the death of his father, showing the “heroic officer”). Jason, realizing who AJ’s father is, succumbs to rage–as his father once did–seeking revenge and some idea of justice. Talk about the whole sins of the father being passed down, huh? I was probably most nervous at this point of the film, again realizing that someone is about to explode.

After Jason seemingly attempts to kill AJ in his house, Avery arrives home from work to find Jason waiting for him with a gun. He tells Avery to get in his car and drive until he tells him otherwise. Avery drives deep into the woods, to a “place beyond the pines,” if you will–where he sinks to his knees, barely able to look at the son of the man whom he killed. Avery, held at gun point, accepts that this is the end for him–the very moment he’s been running from for 15 years. In the most intense moment of grief, despair, guilt and shame, Avery looks up to Jason and says, “I’m sorry, Jason”–and Jason leaves. The film ends with Avery winning the office of New York Attorney General, and AJ riding away on a motorcycle, just like his old man.


Director and co-writer, Derek Cianfrance, said of his film, “This film is about how history never goes away.” Indeed, The Place Beyond the Pines is a film about “toxic shame” and the despair of its inescapability. The elements of judgement, revenge, justice, guilt and shame are almost Shakespearean. Two paths cross, or rather, clash–and the result is almost too much to bear for everyone involved. One fascinating element of this film is the fact that the lines separating good and evil/justice and injustice are quite blurry. The film is heavily character driven, giving viewers a close look into each person’s fears and grief, and the result is sympathy. No one character is presented as overtly antagonistic, or protagonistic for that matter. The film does a stunning job of leveling the playing field. No one is immune from the realization that something is seriously wrong; they are all seeking change. One minute you find yourself “rooting” for one character, only to find yourself rooting for the next guy in the next scene. Cianfrance’s decision to avoid the “poetic justice” route–Jason avenging his father by shooting his killer in the woods–is a profound one: it brings everyone’s attention to Avery’s apology/repentance. The event that Avery couldn’t shake has caught up to him, and he gives up: “I’m sorry, Jason.”

Throughout the film, Avery is outwardly perceived as a man who has it all together–heroic policeman and soon-to-be Attorney General–but inwardly his shame is destroying him. Because the film is extremely honest–it doesn’t avoid the “darkness” of the story remotely–the redemptive/hopeful moment in the woods is all the more rewarding for viewers. The film doesn’t have a conventional, or redemptive ending; Cianfrance wouldn’t dare allow that. Avery’s apology is simple, unimpressive, yet deeply moving. You might be wondering, what happens in the story that makes “a place beyond the pines” so important in the film’s development? A man at the end of himself and a simple apology, that’s the only thing that happens beyond the pines. The only moment in which Avery Cross expresses any kind of relief, is when he faces his most shameful act and admits to it. With this in mind, the “place beyond the pines” is a beautiful place indeed.