The critically acclaimed new film Beyond the Pines, written and Directed by auteur filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, missed the mark in many ways. Cianfrance succeeds in bringing together visually stunning sequences with deeply nuanced character development in the film. From Ryan Gosling’s ninety mile and hour race scenes along the turbulent backwoods of New York State to Bradley Cooper’s gut-wrenching portrayal of a good man among a world of greed and corruption, the first hour of the film has all the elements of an amazing feature. The only thing missing is a coherent story. While the trailer leads you to believe that the film is an intense look into the conflict between cop and criminal, Cianfrance delivers a seventeen year epic focusing on the relationship between two men who both make decisions that cause their lives to intersect for only one moment – but be revisited in the lives of their sons.
My deep disappointment in the film is not in its failures as a piece of art, but in its refusal to engage with the story it presents to the audience. While I understand that the film is supposed to be “about turbulent male relationships through the generations—what fathers and sons give to one another and withhold from one another,” as David Denby wrote in the New Yorker, the biggest failure of this movie is that does not complete the conversation between Gosling and Cooper’s characters, that is, the realities of right versus wrong in a system and society that is perpetually plagued by corruption and misinformation. Just as Zero Dark Thirty failed to address the turbulent reality of America’s fears and sins in the post 9/11 war on terror, and asSilver Linings Playbook turned a raw look into the stigmatization of mental illness into a happy go luck love story about football and competitive dance, Beyond the Pines joins the long line of critically acclaimed films that simply bypass the right conversations.
For the sake of transparency, this is the movie that I wanted to see: Motorcycling daredevil Luke discovers that a one time fling with a waitress one year ago in Schenectady, NY has resulted in a child he never knew he had. Faced with the emotional urgency and the responsibility of caring for a life other than his own, he turns to crime as way of supporting his family. Avery, a lawyer turned street cop desperately in search of a more tangible justice than that found inside a courtroom, pursues Luke. Two men, criminal and cop, villain and hero; two sides of a legal system that expounds a clear division of right and wrong, despite being, at its best, a murky affair of ego and corruption. Phillip French of The Guardian writes Gosling’s portrayal of Luke “remains violent, willful and lawless…redeemed in the eyes of the audience, but not in those of society,” the two men’s story is “an ironic tale that closely parallels [each others] in its moral ambiguity.” Unfortunately, the intersection of these two stories is never fully realized, and audiences are once again left with the missed opportunity to truly examine the systems by which we live lives.
Implicit in Cianfrance’s portrayal of crime, criminals and criminality, are factors of inequality, class and intergenerational poverty. Luke is not just a sexy bad boy with a six pack and a need to live on the edge; he is man with no safety net, no father, and no way of truly supporting his family without settling for the scraps of minimum wage or turning to crime. Avery is not just a good cop in a corrupt precinct, he is an one cog in a legal machine that places the ego of individuals in the system over the people it claims to protect. Luke and Avery are not driven by a vague sense of philosophy; they are products of their environment, of a society that, despite their different backgrounds, has failed them in similar ways. For Cianfrance to engage these characters, to develop these them beyond mere archetype and give them a history and a voice, only to let that conversation be overshadowed by a vague and patchy philosophy about the legacies of fathers and sons is a failure to both his audience and the characters themselves.
The third and final section of the film sees, in the most literal terms, the sins of the father being visited upon the sons, as both Luke and Avery’s teenage boys are pitted against each other in a melodrama of sex, drugs and angst. While, compared to the saga of their fathers, the relationship between the two boys leaves much to be desired, there is one very real lesson to be learned from their conflict. To believe that legacies are always gifts, is a sign and a failure of hubris. The actions of one generation always affect the later. While Cinnefrance has created a beautiful, albeit problematic piece of art, his masculinized romanticization of poverty and crime continues a downward cycle of silence and dismissal.