Let’s get something out of the way first: I am not a crier.
It is not that I have some male chauvinist tough guy complex about not ever letting myself cry, but rather that things in life--be it movies, books, music, experiences, things that are supposed to be sad or emotionally compelling, etc.--simply do not bring me to tears very often. I have a dead, stone-like heart, perhaps, or a broken part of my brain that simply does not activate that inherent human emotion that says: It is time to cry now.
That said, let’s begin.
“The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie about fathers and sons,” a friend had told me one morning over coffee at a small Denver roastery on South Broadway Street near my home, “and you should watch it. I don’t want to say much more than that, but… just watch it. It gives you a lot to think about.”
This was March 2014. We had spent a bright weekend morning discussing movies and various other things. Among them, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel which had just come out, and The Conjuring (both of which my friend recommended, for I had not seen either at the time), as well as Akira and The Shining (which I urged him to see). We talked about books, got refills of coffee, talked some more, then said our goodbyes and went our separate ways to get on with the rest of the weekend.
Jump to two weeks later. It was a rainy, overcast Saturday afternoon. I was settled comfortably onto my purple IKEA couch--which, damn it all, looked undeniably grey, not purple, when my wife and I picked it out in the IKEA showroom some weeks earlier--with a Sierra Nevada IPA in hand and a copy of The Place Beyond the Pines in the BluRay player. I had put a copy on hold at the library, as had a number of other folks, apparently, because there was a two week wait on availability. My wife, eight months pregnant at the time, was out--it’s true--photographing a wedding, even with a sizable baby-belly swelling out from her middle. I specifically waited until I could watch Pines on my own because I knew from reading a short synopsis that it would probably be too much of a “downer” for her to enjoy.
The film began and I was struck by the quiet intensity of the opening scene. Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), shirtless, covered in black and green tattoos, skin shining with sweat, breathing heavily and pacing back and forth in a small room while flipping a butterfly knife open and closed, hyping himself up. Cut to a lengthy one-shot that remains fixed on the back of Luke’s head as he, now clad in a red leather jacket, weaves through the colorful pandemonium of a carnival surrounding him. He arrives at a red and white big top tent where inside an announcer is shouting his name to wild cheers from a crowd as he approaches a dirtbike, already running and chugging with anticipatory life. From the first moment I was intrigued by this character but also got the immediate sense that something about him was very unsafe.
The film progressed and I was fully enveloped in its first act; a quickly-paced back and forth narrative of aggressive heist scenes blended with the mellow, somewhat tragic personal life of Luke Glanton, his illegitimate infant son, and the woman Romina (Eva Mendes) with whom he has a complicated bond.
Aside from this first third of the movie being wonderful all its own (if painful to watch), I enjoyed the added luxury of knowing absolutely nothing about the film prior to seeing it, save for the ambiguous recommendation of my friend. Thus, I was jarred (and delighted) upon discovering, slowly and subtly, that this movie was something wholly other than what I had been expecting. The way in which the plot unfolds has an amorphous and deceptive quality (in a good way), leaving the viewer walking away from a film that feels very different from the one that they stepped into, even though the story itself remains fluid and intact.
To describe this any further would be to ruin the pleasures lying hidden within Pines that the person seeing it for the first time ought to have the privilege of discovering for themselves. While it does not contain the hard-hitting, jolt-to-the-system twists like that of Gone Girl or The Usual Suspects, that is not to say it is a film without surprises.
Derek Cianfrance is a master of quietness and subtlety who seems to have a fondness for exploring characters with regular, less-than-fantastic lives. In regards to the quietness: there are long segments in Pines without a soundtrack, or with music mixed so softly it serves only as a delicate undertone to the action on the screen, providing the performers enough vulnerable space in which to glow. As to the subtlety: Cianfrance’s characters often tend to be melancholy in such a way that even they do not realize they are melancholy, however to the viewer it is abundantly clear. They are not pathetic per se, and yet there are parts of their lives that make us cringe. Perhaps they are not openly depressed, and yet there is an undeniable sadness intertwined in their person. These are people whose lives appear to be just a little bit worse than our own; utterly, exhaustingly regular.
It was during one of these “regular” moments in The Place Beyond the Pines that I experienced one of the most jarring emotional incidents of my adult life.
The second act of the film began and I was being introduced to Officer Avery Cross, Bradley Cooper’s character, who had just been injured in a shootout with Luke Glanton. He was being legally coached at the hospital by his superiors into changing his story regarding the altercation, saying Glanton had shot first, even though Avery knew that was not the truth. What begins as Avery being in possible legal trouble flips instead to him becoming a hero among the local police force; one of “the good guys” injured in the line of duty. Avery’s discomfort with being heralded is visible on his face in the scenes following. He is sorely aware of his dishonesty, yet he never discourages the praise being poured out on him, nor pipes up to confess the truth about what happened. I could not help but feel a sort of misguided sympathy towards him for the tricky situation in which he had been placed, and found myself wondering what choices I would have made given the same scenario.
Back at home, Avery’s wife had recently given birth to their first child, a son. A scene opens in which nothing special is happening. Avery and his wife settle down on the couch with their newborn in a small, cozy-looking home to watch television (a news program singing more praises to Avery Cross’ heroism). It is not a crucial scene in the film, and its inclusion serves only two basic purposes: to give us a small peek into Avery’s new life as a father, and to remind us via the TV program that he is still a local celebrity.
And yet something caught in my throat.
That will be my life soon passed through my head in a whisper.
The inconsequential elements on-screen added up to something strange and overwhelming: that humble disheveled look of the Cross family’s living room, in need of picking up but neglected because that’s what new parents do. That warm simplicity of a family’s quiet evening at home together. That delicate infant boy in his clean onesie, pure white.
Suddenly I’m weeping. It started small, a few streams down the cheeks that took me completely by surprise. I had a fleeting thought that I was being ridiculous because this was hardly the sort of scene to be crying at, but the tears kept coming. And growing.
Remember that my wife was eight months pregnant at this time, so the looming certainty of having a child (and becoming a father) was hovering over my thoughts constantly, whether up front or in my deep subconscious. Knowing that there would be a baby in my home in roughly a month’s time was a bizarre and emotionally-loaded sensation. Fear, joy, excitement, uncertainty, feelings of inadequacy, questions as to whether making the decision to have a child was a mistake, and a million other things all rolled into one. Sitting there crying on the couch, I realized more fully than ever that there was going to be a little person whom I had never met before living with my wife and I very soon; an actual human with a heart and a personality and a face; a tangible thing of flesh and blood to hold and nurture. Seeing that quiet little family at home together on the couch opened something up inside me that I had never known was there.
This may sound made up, but my weeping got to the point that I had to pause the movie and go into the bathroom for tissues. I remember thinking in some distant part of my brain What in the world am I doing? and Where is this coming from? even though I knew the answer to that. I stood in my bathroom and continued to cry until I was hunched over, wet tissues bunched in my hand and my arms crossed over my stomach. My shoulders trembled as the waves of emotion washed over me, and I just let them keep coming until they were finished. I was not sad, nor was I necessarily happy, but I can say that what was happening felt cathartic and wonderful, like a great release after being closed up and under pressure for far too long. It felt like something secret and beautiful and true had blindsided me from the most unexpected of places. And while to this day I don’t understand exactly what happened that rainy afternoon, I do believe it was necessary and, in a way, a gift.
The tears finally stopped and I splashed some water on my face, then went back to the living room to finish the movie. I was in something like a euphoric state for the rest of the film, and damn if that Sierra Nevada wasn’t the best thing I had ever tasted.
My friend was right, The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie about fathers and sons, but it is also a movie about parents and children. I watched it a second time a few months ago (with my wife this time, and she liked it just fine) and my perspective was wholly different after having had a child. The scene I described earlier did not bring me to tears during this second viewing--that was a moment of inexplicable magic which I would be foolish to expect twice--however it did conjure a sweet memory of that strange tumultuous experience I had enjoyed (yes, enjoyed) a year and a half earlier.
I said at the start that I was not a crier, but that is not quite an accurate statement anymore. It would be more honest to say that I did not used be a crier. Since our child was born in April of 2014, a girl, I’ve cried plenty, and it’s wonderful. Sometimes those tears are out of sheer exhaustion, yes, but mostly they have been borne of laughter and joy that goes far beyond myself.
The Place Beyond the Pines is not my favorite film, but it is one with which I will always share a unique bond, for something unutterable and lovely broke open in me the first time I watched it. If that rainy afternoon served as a foreshadowing to something beautiful, the birth of my daughter was undoubtedly that beauty brought to fruition.