Reviewed: The Place Beyond the Pines

A good gander at Gosling.

The Place Beyond the Pines (15)
dir: Derek Cianfrance

The phrase “Always leave ’em wanting more” was probably not foremost in the mind of the director Derek Cianfrance when he elected to open his latest film with a close-up of the bare torso of his star, Ryan Gosling. (For some viewers, this will be like receiving dessert before dinner.)

Even in the internet age, where it can seem that every bit-part actor is an icon, there is a frisson surrounding Gosling, the like of which has not been seen since those photos of Keanu Reeves looking sad while eating a sandwich. Gosling fills our need for an actor who is simultaneously pretty, intelligent and sorrowful but who has yet to throw in his lot with the blockbuster: a grass-roots idol. He is rather indulged in The Place Beyond the Pines by a director with whom he has become transparently comfortable. (They worked together on Cianfrance’s last film, Blue Valentine, a gruelling story of marital breakdown.) Gosling’s performance is characterised by feigned inarticulacy and mumbling method madness. His co-star Bradley Cooper, who has not previously shown an aptitude for the subtle or the intense, has the comfortable monopoly here on great acting.

Gosling plays Luke, a fairground stunt rider who is first shown in an unbroken tracking shot striding from his trailer to the marquee where he will join two other motorcyclists zooming around inside a giant steel globe. His natural habitat is the open road: in sympathy with him, the film’s recurring motif is a driving shot that floats a metre or two higher than the vehicle it’s following, suggesting surveillance but also transcendence. Luke walks out of his car­nival job and pitches up unannounced at the home of his old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes). Her mother answers the door with a tot in her arms. “Who’s this guy?” sniffs Luke. Not being the sort to beat around the bush, the woman blurts out: “He’s yours.” More than two hours later, most of us will wish she had been placed in charge of the editing.

Romina is understandably reluctant to let Luke back in her life. He is unemployed, has a trashy dye-job and displays his personality in his tattoos. Perhaps it’s wrong to judge a man by his bodily ink: the grenade on Luke’s arm and the knife dripping blood beneath his right eye could very well conceal a talent for macramé, or an abiding love for the films of Joyce Grenfell.

It just happens that he has a nasty temper and a shaky moral compass. He puts out a rival’s eye and turns energetically to crime to support his son. Luke is essentially a brute but there’s rather too much editorialising about him in the script. A scene in which he poses for a photograph with Romina and the baby, telling the waitress who is snapping them to “just capture the mood”, is amusing but out of character; it’s funny without feeling remotely true. It’s as though everyone involved, including Gosling, were worried Luke would come across as a dumb lug. There are actors who can play the dope without tipping a wink to the audience, but Gosling isn’t one of them. There is too much self-awareness in his eyes: the lights are off but there’s still somebody home.

One of the more interesting elements of Blue Valentine was its non-chronological narrative, and Cianfrance has again approached structure in a novel fashion. To say more would spoil some of the film’s disorienting surprises. But as other plotlines impinge on Luke’s story – including a rookie cop, Avery Cross (Cooper), who contemplates blowing the whistle on police corruption – the film grows in stature, assuming tragic dimensions. Cooper’s scenes bring dramatic freshness to a fairly standard cop-movie dilemma. With his soft, square head and hounded eyes, he exhibits levels of fragility that make Montgomery Clift seem like an uncouth longshoreman.

The Place Beyond the Pines has so much ambition that it’s disappointing its sweeping vision of a world governed by guilt and revenge doesn’t extend to women – parti­cularly when you recall the banquet of a part that Cianfrance wrote for Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine. While the men in the film run around injuring one another and gnashing their teeth, female characters such as Romina or Avery’s wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne), are shunted off screen; presumably they are knitting or skipping through copses until the next time they are required to keep a vigil at the bedside of a male relative. The mythically tinged final scene brings events full circle in a way that is superficially satisfying while also conceding that the movie’s chief concern is men and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

 

Ryan Gosling at the New York premiere party. (Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era