Warning: This article contains spoilers and is intended mainly for those who have already seen the film.
“The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons” (Exodus 34:7). Were this the only subtext in Derek Cianfrance’s multigenerational saga of twisted fate and broken dreams, The Place Beyond the Pines might be taken simply as an updating of Elia Kazan 1953 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s modern-day reworking of the Cain and Abel tale, East of Eden. Instead, this densely packed film manages to stitch together the Tanakh and Greek myth and tether both to a modern-day crime drama set in an American burg beneath whose idyllic exterior, a la Hitchcock (and Freud), reside swine. Schenectady, New York, provides the serenely sinister backdrop—a name that instantly conjures Charlie Kaufman’s solipsistic brain-twister with the devilishly allusive title Synecdoche, New York (2008). The result is a neo-noir with more cinematic panache and multi-layered resonance than any since Roman Polanski/Robert Towne’s magisterial Chinatown (1974).
We open on a carnival at night, with a bravura long take that follows daredevil performer Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) as he wends his way past flashing lights and bustling crowds onto a motorcycle and into the shot’s payoff. All great openings encapsulate the film’s main theme(s), but few accomplish this as dynamically as the crosshatched metal Globe of Death that Luke rumbles into, along with two other daredevils, who proceed to crisscross one another in spherical patterns at breakneck speed. Thus are motorcycles and daredevil stunts, the film’s prime narrative drivers, intertwined with the film’s master motifs: circles and crosses.
If the first circular sign didn’t register (its symbolism only comes into relief in the film’s second and third parts), it soon gets a second chance. A Ferris wheel looms brightly behind Luke (recalling one of the Gospel authors) and Eva Mendez’s Romina (anagram of Romani, aka Gypsy), visually binding him to his wanna-be true love/quasi-femme fatale as they semi-coincidentally cross paths after his stunt. “Crossing paths” are literalized in Luke’s subsequent motorcycle meet-cute with future bank-robbing partner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), after they free-wheel it along parallel trails through the eponymous pine forest at the edge of town.
As any noir aficionado knows, crosses serve the genre’s conceits in several ways. Whether in X or crucifixion form, they can signify intersection or convergence but also doubling/splitting, ambivalence, and death. All the above apply in Beyond the Pines.
Recalling Edward G. Robinson’s Chris Cross in 1945’s Scarlet Street and John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown (not to mention the 1949 noir titled Criss Cross), Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross wears the pregnant symbol in his name. The film itself splits in two upon Cross’s delayed entry into it, after his sensitive cop character kills Luke in a shoot-out following a botched bank robbery. Cross’s doubling with Luke goes beyond his stunning, Psycho-like replacement of Luke as the film’s protagonist midway through the film. The killing, while removing Luke’s physical presence, binds Cross to him psychologically and generationally—via Luke’s (and Romina’s, out-of-wedlock) infant son, who matches in age and gender Cross’s own baby boy.
Enter Exodus and Genesis, Oedipus, and the Orestian trilogy—as the film jumps fifteen years ahead and splits in two again. Luke’s son Jason Canaday (the mythic Argonaut plus a play on Abel’s slayer) and Cross’s son AJ (an alphabetical composite of Avery and Jason) now take center stage. Cross himself by no means disappears. His uncovering of police corruption in the department and subsequent rise in the district attorney’s office, coupled with his past heroism in the killing of Luke, has made him the favored candidate for attorney general. But like the Oracle of Schenectady foretold, two sons he thought were banished come back to haunt him. His divorced wife suddenly dumps the estranged and troubled AJ (Emory Cohen) on him in the midst of the campaign, and AJ’s new high school and drug buddy turns out to be Jason (Dave De Haan)—with the added ironic interconnection that, while Jason’s loving stepfather is black, AJ acts the White Negro in the Eminem vain.
Cross is the first to learn of the fateful return (of the repressed), moving him to pull strings to get both AJ and Jason off after a drug bust. When the newly curious Jason uncovers the hidden identity of his biological father and the man who killed him, the allegorical Erinyes kick in. After shooting (but only wounding) AJ, Jason forces Cross at gunpoint into the pine forest where Luke met Robin and Cross avoided killing by the rogue cops’ ringleader—but where he seems unlikely to escape a second time. The revenge cycle has come full circle—mythically a la Orestes and Aegisthus, cinematically per the Coen brothers’ 1990 noir Miller’s Crossing.
Courtesy of the converted Eumenides, however, and Cianfrance’s post-postmodern sensibility, the retributive chain is broken. A finger flick from firing, Jason grudgingly accepts Cross’s tearful apology and departs the pines, and Schenectady—pining instead, on his Easy Rider-like chopper, for a new life West of Eden.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, was published in early 2013.