“Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story,” writer John Barth has said.  Not everyone can be Cary Grant or Arnold Schwarzenegger, however.  Real people tend to be more complicated, less successful, and make terrible mistakes that dog them for the rest of their lives – which can nonetheless be heroic within the context of their lives-as-films.  The ragged, damaged life of carnival stunt rider Luke Glanton is one such story of tragic heroism, and his film, appropriately, is as beautiful, messy, epic, haunting, and asymmetrical as is life itself.

Audaciously and frustratingly structured as a triptych, Derek Cianfrance’s new film The Place Beyond the Pines is really three interdependent stories, beginning with that of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), who as Handsome Luke and the Heartthrobs – his name echoing Paul Newman’s irrepressible, self-destructive rebel in Cool Hand Luke – risks his life on a regular basis for the amusement of strangers at carnivals.  When, during a sojourn in Schenectady, New York, he learns that one year previously a local waitress (Eva Mendes) conceived his child, Luke’s life is pitched into crisis as he yearns to play some part in the life of his infant son and the mother, who, however, is now involved with a black man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who has adopted the child.

Luke Glanton immediately takes his place among the great character creations of the cinema, and Gosling is ideally cast to capture his combination of a wild, mythical quality with a naked humanity that touches the viewer from his first troubling, fascinating appearance onscreen.  Luke is a study in contradictions, of shadow and light, violence and love, with his brooding dark eyes and pretty blonde hair, his playboy looks and body scarred with tattoos telling the story of a lifetime’s worth of poor decisions.  A dripping dagger tear tattoo suggests both the sadness of the character and his mysterious criminal past.

Luke is absent after the first third of the film, replaced as protagonist by other, intersecting characters’ lives, but to tell too much about the stories in The Place Beyond the Pines would be to deprive the audience of the revelatory experience.  The succeeding segments of the film may not carry the same impact or immediacy of interest, but are definitely compelling, particularly insofar as these are informed and darkened or brightened in turn by Luke’s paternal and criminal legacy.  Flawed though it arguably is, The Place Beyond the Pines is a triumph for Gosling and Cianfrance, rich in atmosphere and unique music, and is one of the most striking films of the year – one that should be seen on the big screen while possible.

4.5 stars.  Ideological Content Analysis indicates that The Place Beyond the Pines is:

7. Drug-ambivalent.  Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) gets high with the disgusting AJ (Emory Cohen), who also bullies him into stealing drugs for a party.  No definite judgment or consequences are attached to these behaviors apart from the threat of police interference and jail time, but the film does nothing really to glorify substance abuse – with, however, the possible exception of alcohol, when Luke’s old associate Robin (Killing Them Softly‘s Ben Mendelsohn, in a small but meaty role one wishes had been expanded) offers underaged Jason a beer in camaraderie.  Smoking, too, arguably receives an endorsement.

6. Anti-racist (i.e., pro-yawn) – and yet surprisingly anti-wigger.  The revolting AJ, though a wigger himself, seems uneasy and put off by Jason’s mixed parentage.

5. Christian.  Luke has a tattoo of a Bible on one of his hands.  His religious views are never articulated, but one assumes that something approximating Christian morality motivates him to take responsibility for the child he has fathered.  Kofi attends church with Romina (Mendes) and sees to it that Luke’s son is baptized.

4. Anti-state.  Politicians are phony, opportunistic careerists, a mentality illustrated by one candidate’s itinerary cynically making room for visits to black churches.  Nor does the law apply equally when the perpetrator happens to be a politician or his relative.  Jason’s black market purchase of a pistol demonstrates the futility of gun control measures.

3. Family-ambivalent.  The film offers both positive and negative examples.

2. Pro-miscegenation/multiculturalist/pro-slut/pro-bastard.  Single mother Romina has no qualms about carrying on with two different men of different races while ostensibly committed to one.  Race realists and race deniers will, however, come away from The Place Beyond the Pines with totally different interpretations of the interracial triangle central to its story.  Progressives will see in Kofi’s relationship with Romina and his adoption of her bastard child a demonstration of multiculturalist harmony in application, with Kofi showing how a black man can do the responsible thing and raise a family, even one that is not his own, in a safe and loving environment.  Racially conscious whites will find in the triangle a horrific and repugnant allegory showing how the white man’s recklessness and poor management of his affairs have resulted in his thoughtless abdication of the future, with the disconcerting outcome that unworthy others will take and stain his office and bed and even father his descendents.

1. Anti-police/relativist.  The police, as typified by veteran Deluca (Ray Liotta), are corrupt and no better than the robbers and drug dealers they catch and whose families they harass.

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