When I was 10 or 11 years old, my father and I watched Star Wars together. He didn't particularly like the film, but, when I was an impressionable youth, he took the time to spend an afternoon watching it anyway, because he didn't want me to be deprived of the opportunity to like that kind of thing.
I distinctly remember the two of us, sitting on the couch, both wanting to be outside playing baseball or more actively wasting our Saturday, he felt it necessary to allow me the chance to enjoy something that he didn't. He didn't want me to have grown up without seeing Star Wars just because my dad wasn't into anything remotely related to science-fiction. I've always looked back on that awkward afternoon as a commentary on fatherhood, which is why I couldn't help but recall it while watching The Place Beyond the Pines.
In The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance (much like everyone else on the planet) first focuses on Ryan Gosling's abs. The opening scene follows Gosling's Luke as he plays with a switchblade before making a grand entrance as a mysterious motorcycle stunt driver—imagine James Dean as a carnie. The long, slithering sequence follows Luke from dressing room to post-performance autographs. Much like we've come to expect from Gosling, it's stoic, but revealing. Gosling doesn't verbally tell us much, but that's because Cianfrance is showing us plenty.
Early on, Luke becomes a rebel with a cause when he figures out that an old flame in upstate New York has given birth to his son. Papa immediately wants to give up life as a Rolling Stone to help out with diapers and such. The trouble is, though, that motorcycle stunt driving is a traveling gig that isn't exactly going to start a college fund on its own, so Luke begins to rob banks. He gives his money to his baby mama, Romina, who's shacked up with a new boyfriend who doesn't have a facial tattoo or any of the bad-boy baggage that comes with it.
Cianfrance's Pines doesn't stop there. The three-part tragedy uses Luke's crime spree as a jumping-off point. It runs nearly two and half hours and spends time examining the flip side of Luke's coin. In the beginning of The Departed, Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello says, "When I was your age, they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this: when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" For the last two-thirds of Pines, Cianfrance demonstrates the subtle difference and all of its similarities.
At times, it can certainly feel like Cianfrance is trying too hard. Though it might have paid for him to do less, The Place Beyond the Pines satisfies, with a sharp stare at what it means to be a father and its slight nod toward nature vs. nuture. In the end, while it feels like Cianfrance is dragging you toward an answer, he's actually just making sure you noticed the question. And Ryan Gosling's abs. Because, if you hadn''t notice, he's got a lot of them.