Crisis Masculinity: A Feminist Reading of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (Film Review Essay)

by Donovan Schaefer

Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerfully composed narrative triplet that follows crisis moments of two men, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) and Avery Cross (Brad Cooper) and their sons, A.J. (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane deHaan) 15 years later.  In this short review essay, I discuss how the film both unravels and then reinscribes a particular mythology of masculinity–what I call crisis masculinity–a masculinity that transacts smoothly with the apocalyptic sensibilities of certain modes of American religion and a certain American fascination with guns.

Plot Summary: In 1990, Luke is a motorcycle stuntman at a regional fair at Altamont, New York, in Albany County near Schenectady. He re-encounters a woman he had a fling with the previous year, Romina (Eva Mendes) and learns she has had his son.  Romina rejects Luke’s offer of help because she has a new live-in boyfriend, but Luke still quits his job and takes a job with a local mechanic, who teaches him how to rob banks.  Luke continues trying to press his way into Romina and his son’s lives with money and gifts but loses the support of his partner and ends up dying in a heist that falls apart, shot by Avery, who is working as a police officer.  Avery has his own son of the same age and is emotionally devastated when he learns about Luke’s boy.  Frustrated by corruption in the Schenectady police department, Avery engineers a sting operation that he uses to not only expose wrongdoing but launch his own career as an assistant DA.  Fifteen years later, A.J. and Jason meet at school without knowing of their fathers’s connection.  Jason learns about his father by chance as his friendship with A.J.–who is pushing him to obtain drugs–falls apart.  Jason breaks into the Cross home, threatens A.J. with a gun, and kidnaps Avery.  He plans to shoot Avery in the forest but Avery talks him out of it (exactly what turns Jason around is unclear).  In the final scene, Jason buys a motorcycle and, in spite of having never driven one before, uses it to run away from home.

Each of the first two segments of Cianfrance’s tripartite narrative offers a compact, compelling case study of contemporary American masculinity and the fascination male bodies have with crisis.  The opening sequence shows Luke playing a rapid, rhythmic game with a folding knife in his trailer.  He is shirtless, muscular, and tattooed as he punches the knife into the wall and then strides to the arena where he leads his teammates in a daring motorcycle performance.  Luke is wrapped up in a particular imaging of American masculinity as determined, cagy, careerist, and unpredictable.  The rhythmic clicking knife in his hand perfectly captures the complex tones of this masculinity: it is stable but always riding the sharp edge of crisis, fascinated with apocalyptic performances.

When Luke meets Romina, he is arrested by the revelation that he has a son.  This new crisis snares Luke’s attentions, and he quits his job and refocuses on winning Romina back and taking a role in his son’s life.  Although there is a sense in which this new track departs from Luke’s earlier itinerant lifestyle and seems to be a way of settling down, the rapid escalation of his interest from quitting his job to violence (one wonders if Luke would be reacting differently to the situation if another male body–and a black male body, at that–weren’t already in the picture) to betrayal of his partner to a reckless, ill-advised crime spree suggests that Luke’s interest never really lay in stability, that it was a genre of apocalypticism all along, haunted by the knife-edge mystique of American masculinity.  Luke’s fascination with his gun seems to emblematize this apocalyptic aesthetic  Even though his partner–in the role of the wry, wise, stable older criminal who is willing to go years without doing a heist–urges him to forego a gun (“I never liked guns, man–they’re vulgar”), Luke uses the gun in his robberies, to betray Robin (he literally sticks it in Robin’s mouth, emasculating him), and in his fateful escape scene.  The gun is ultimately the reason he is shot down by Avery, raising the stakes of their encounter beyond a level either of them can actually handle.  As Robin warns, in a line that serves as a repudiation of Luke’s apocalyptic self-imagining, his addiction to crisis: “If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.”

Avery Cross’s segment also explores ways that American masculinity is driven by crisis.  In it, he inhabits the role of a man who experiences the steep sense of vulnerability–the affective disconnect–that emerges out of feeling like a fraud.  Lauded as a hero, he feels an affinity for the man he shot, a shooting that Avery alone knows was illegal: Avery fired first, not realizing that the high-profile hostage situation he thought he was interrupting was in fact only the thrashings of a naive, desperate man trying to prove himself to his family.  Avery’s life, too, becomes a succession of crises, as his star rises rapidly and he is pulled into the orbit of the culture of corruption of his department.  Rather than simply trying to neutralize these crises, however, Avery orchestrates a complicated, high-risk counterplay in which he leaves the force and begins a new career as an assistant DA.  The image of Avery sitting at his re-assigned post (after being injured) in the evidence cellar of the police station, livid with boredom, emblematizes the same masculinized compulsion we found in Luke: a longing for the knife-edge.

In the final segment of the film, we realize that this jump was Avery’s attempt–pressured, in part, by his politically-minded father–to launch an even more high-profile political career.  The third part begins with Avery’s father’s funeral and the kick-off of Avery’s campaign for attorney general of New York.  Avery’s marriage has fallen apart as a result of his relentless career ambitions.  His son, A.J., seems to have picked up his same taste for a knife-edge life, with parties, drugs, and money his top priorities.  A.J. even speaks in an affected street dialect alien to his white upper-middle class upbringing but that serves his fantasy of himself as a man living dangerously.  His fascination with the aesthetics of crisis is mirrored by Jason, who within the span of 48 hours learns about his father, buys a gun, beats up his former friend and kidnaps a D.A., threatening to kill him.  All of these characterizations speak to the way that American masculinity is composed inside an apocalyptic set of parameters–again imaged by the icon of the gun–that wreak havoc on the lives of those around them and themselves.

But the final section is also where the film narrative collapses, and the delicate unsettling of masculinity twists back into a crude romanticization that undermines the well-constructed plotting of the first two-thirds of the film.  This happens in the denouement of the film, after Jason has released Avery and stormed off with the photograph of himself as a child with his biological father and mother.  The final images show Romina opening her mail box and finding the picture sent to her as a postcard from her son.  Romina doesn’t seem like she’s in a good mood, but she categorically does not look like someone whose son has been missing for at least two days and has not attempted to contact her.  Here, the characterization of Romina as a tough, vulnerable, smart, reckless character beautifully crafted by Mendes totally falls apart: what mother, certainly one as loving as Romina, would be so well-composed in a situation like that?  The fact that the female characters in this film are given very scant material to work with–almost forgivable up to this point because of the brilliantly efficient performances by Mendes and Rose Byrne–is thrown into high relief and becomes a gross defect in the plot.  We are left with a mother who seems almost willing to let her reckless, impulsive teenage son disappear to Find His Destiny.

Furthermore, the cutely mythological “Get it?  He knows how to ride a motorcycle already, just like his real dad” moment in the film’s final shot suggests some sort of supernatural affinity between Luke and Jason–who would have only seen his biological father for a few hours in the first months of his life–that defies sense and rips the nuance of the film to shreds.  The most egregious part of this final move is the way it betrays the earlier, very strong work the narrative does to flesh out the relationship between Jason and his stepfather.  The scene where Kofi (Mahershala Ali) takes Jason out for ice cream after his arrest and answers his questions about Luke but also insists, with heartbreaking poignancy, sincerity, and love “I’m your father” puts down the mythology of biological paternity and patterns the possibility of alternative family models.  The ending implicitly repudiates this earlier scene, affirming the invalidity of adoptive and queer families that are not formed around lines of biological descent.

The ending of the film is a rotten note that corrupts the strong, tightly woven narrative up to that moment, “trading [the film’s] grit and psychological insight for overwrought, capitalized emotions,” as A.O. Scott wrote.  If the film had ended in a way that was consistent not only with Jason’s character but with the thematics of undoing the apocalyptic romance of crisis masculinity it would have sidestepped this problem: Jason could struggle alone with the revelations about his biological father before returning to his welcoming, imperfect but immensely loving family.  It would retain the poignancy of the ending but also produce a much more believable character–and would have been a directorial challenge far more worthy of Cianfrance’s exceptional talent and insight into subtleties of character.  Instead, the ending can only be described as an indulgence in teenagerish melancholy, closing with the affectation that men are doomed to treat maternal love and non-biological paternity as disposable–as if biological paternity alone was determinative of destiny, the ultimate, irresistible crisis.

This entry was posted in Donovan Schaefer, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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