Fate, Character, and Cyclical Thinking: Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines
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This paper argues that The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) can be read optimistically and pessimistically. According to the optimistic reading, agents can shake off the burden of the past, while according to the pessimistic reading, agents can never break out of the cycles of which they are part.
In one of his most well known extant sayings, Heraclitus asserts that “ethos anthropos daimon”, the standard translation of which is “human character is fate.” Sometimes this is understood to mean that there is no fate, that is, that there is no outside force that necessitates events. On this reading of the saying, ‘human character is fate’ means that fate can be completely reduced to an agent’s character, which is here understood as an agent’s dispositional ability to make decisions.
Sometimes, however, the saying is also understood in the opposite way. The emphasis is then on the word ‘daimon’; ‘character is fate’ is now taken to mean that there is in fact no character, that is, that in fact what human beings think is up to them is actually up to another power. This is in accordance with older, traditional Greek beliefs, according to which one’s daimon is one’s guiding spirit, a kind of outside force that presides over agents’ lives.
Regardless of whichever reading of the Heraclitean saying one prefers, the two rivaling interpretations point to a problem in regard to fate and character that is also identified by Walter Benjamin. In “Fate and Character”, Benjamin rightly observes that “where there is character, there certainly is no fate, and in the context of fate, one will not encounter character.” In other words, character and fate are mutually exclusive categories. To which extent, then, are agents the products of their own decisions and to which extent are they the product of events over which they have no real control? I will argue that this problem—the relationship between fate and character—is explored in some detail in Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 movie The Place Beyond the Pines, albeit without resolving it in one way or another. On my reading, the film takes up ancient ideas of character development and fate and so considers the idea that actions are fated in connection with a cyclical model of time. Such pairing is not necessary because one could think that a person’s actions are fated, but still maintain that time progresses in a linear fashion. However, a cyclical model of time helps emphasize the idea that actions are fated, since the recurrence of certain events suggests that these events do not contingently recur, but that they necessarily do. In any event, as I show in this paper, the emphasis on fate and cyclical thinking makes The Place Beyond the Pines a very atypical viewing for mainstream Western audiences and it perhaps explains why the movie has only received very limited attention so far.
The Place Beyond the Pines exhibits a triptych structure. The first part of the film portrays the sideshow stunt performer Luke (Ryan Gosling), who tries to provide for his family by becoming a bank robber. It culminates in Luke’s death at the end of a dramatic police chase. The second part focuses on police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), who shoots Luke. It portrays Avery as a kind of hero malgré lui. The third part of the film, finally, set 15 years after the first two parts, tells the story of Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) and of Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) and of the burden of the past that is passed on to them.
In what follows, I will successively discuss these three parts, portraying the main characters Luke, Avery, AJ and Jason in terms of fate and character. I will suggest that the first part of The Place Beyond the Pines sets the stage for the discussion of fate by showing how a person’s life can be determined by events beyond their control. The second part, on my reading, then, focuses on the methodological problem that character (and also fate) is often assessed differently from a first- and a third-person perspective. Finally, I will argue the last part of the movie explores fate in focusing on the issue of legacy, that is, the issue of what agents involuntarily inherit and of the responsibility they carry for this inheritance. Taken together with the other parts, this part then depicts time as cyclical and so helps complete the sketch of a world shaped by non-linear thinking.
Part 1: Luke
The Place Beyond the Pines opens with Luke’s story, and it opens in medias res. This makes it a bit difficult to fully assess Luke in terms of fate and character. Yet, I will argue that we can glean quite a bit from Luke’s outward appearance and from the dialogue in later parts of the movie.
Throughout the film, Luke wears washed-out T-shirts and makes a rather run-down and dirty impression. He constantly smokes. And besides his athleticism, his most noticeable features are his tattoos. These cover most of his body and even parts of his face. As Derek Cianfrance remarks in his DVD audio commentary, these tattoos are a sign of Luke’s shame: Ryan Gosling supposedly went too far in designing them and well into the first day of shooting, asked to have some of them removed and to reshoot the scenes that had already been shot. Cianfrance rejected this suggestion. Emphasizing a method acting approach to film making, he insisted that Gosling – and so also Luke – had to live with the burden of the past. This anecdote seems quite symptomatic, for it suggests that Luke is the kind of character whose life is the product of a series of accidents that leads him down a certain path. He only grasps the full consequence of what happens in his life much later. The marks on Luke’s body are indicative of the life he leads. Accordingly, the tattoos are not part of an orchestrated Gesamtkunstwerk, but rather the result of various, perhaps largely amateurish tattoo ‘artists’; they just came about at some point in time.
At the center of the first part of the movie is one of the events that happened to Luke two years ago, namely, an affair with Romina (Eva Mendes) he had the last time he passed through Schenectady, the city where the movie is set. The revelation that this affaire has brought forth a son, Jason, is the first major plot turn of the film. Luke quits his job and stays in town to be close to his son and rekindle the relationship with the mother of his child, but he struggles to make ends meet. Working at Robin’s (Ben Mendelsohn) repair shop provides him with a basic income, but this is not enough. Luke does not know how he can win back the mother of his child and take care of her and his son.
The inability to make ends meet ultimately leads Luke to rob a bank. While Luke has prior convictions at the beginning of the movie, the thought of committing a bank robbery at first repulses him. When Robin first suggests the idea after Luke complains about how difficult it is to support his family on the wage he earns, Luke merely curses at Robin for the suggestion. Quickly, though, the idea seems to become more attractive to him. The movie does not go into the process of Luke’s rethinking in detail, but it does suggest that becoming a bank robber is a gradual process. Robin, who has some experience robbing banks, first explains the plan to Luke in some detail. Then, after the first high-speed heist, Luke vomits after the deed, being affected by the adrenaline rush he felt during the robbery. In subsequent scenes, Luke, however, gets used to the robberies. In other words, his character is habituated to be a bank robber, and he feels no remorse or regret about his actions. This account resonates with a virtue ethics account of character development. For Aristotle, for instance, the acquisition of virtue and vice is first and foremost a matter of performing certain actions repeatedly: one is not naturally just or unjust, but one becomes just through just actions and unjust through unjust actions.
From a philosophical point of view, Luke’s story is interesting insofar as it asks a viewer to consider the question of whether Luke’s decision to become a bank robber was all up to him, that is, to what extent he is responsible for his actions. On the one hand, the movie shows Luke’s transition to robbing banks as the product of many smaller events, which all seem to have been in Luke’s power. Accordingly, one might think that he could have opted out at any moment and there was nothing inevitable about his future. On the other hand, the movie also makes clear that the main reason why Luke becomes a bank robber is beyond his control, namely, the circumstantial factors of his life, the need to make ends meet. It is thus not at all clear whether the audience should hold Luke fully responsible for his actions or whether he should rather be exonerated. Again, with Aristotle, one might therefore be most tempted to understand Luke’s life as a series of mixed actions, that is, actions that are neither completely voluntary nor completely involuntary: A good example of such a mixed action is the victim of a robbery who, as the perpetrator puts a gun to her head, voluntarily hands over her wallet. Certainly, such an action is voluntary insofar as it is really the victim handing over the wallet, but then of course her decision is surely severely affected by the circumstances she is in.
To what extent, then, can Luke be blamed for his actions? As he watches the baptism of his two-year old son, he just quietly sits in one of the pews at the side and cries. This seems to suggest that he regrets his actions to some extent and so at least feels that he is responsible for his actions. However, some scenes also suggest the opposite view. When Luke beats Romina’s new partner Kofi (Mahershala Ali) in an act of unplanned sheer violence after the latter confronts him about illegitimately entering his house, for instance, Luke’s outburst can be explained as an inconsistent act of temper. In moments when Luke is at his worst, that is, at crucial junctures of his life, Luke is then not making calculated decisions. After all, having a bad temper might be something that Luke is born with or a psychological issue, for which he is not fully responsible.
Accordingly, it is not clear to what extend Luke’s actions are really in Luke’s control. After being formally charged with harming Kofi and then being set free on bail, for instance, Luke proposes to his accomplice Robin to rob two banks in one day. This is a desperate attempt to attain sudden happiness, and, with Walter Benjamin, one could say that such an attempt is bound to create guilt. Breaking free from one’s fate is the stuff of Classical tragedy. And since this is never successful for the heroes of Greek myths, it is hardly surprising that it is not for Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, either. During the final and fatal robbery that ends Luke’s life, Luke takes no precautions and ignores several bad signs, for instance, the refusal of his accomplice to assist in further robberies, the demolition of his get-away motorcycle, the fact that his helmet is missing its visor, and the fact that he does not previously take a look at the bank he is planning to rob. These are clear signs against the success of the robbery.
Figure 3. The opening scene of The Place Beyond the Pines.
One might object that, in this case, the action is still up to Luke, since he himself ignores the signs, and so makes a series of poor decisions. But I do not think that this is so clear. After all, it depends on the degree to which Luke is really able to give himself his own character and on the degree to which it is necessitated by events beyond his control. The movie’s opening scene is emblematic here: It shows Luke performing a motorcycle stunt, in which he zigzags the paths of two other motorcyclists in a narrow iron sphere. This may be seen as a metaphor for Luke’s life as a whole: He is trapped in his life cycle and is constantly on the verge of dangerous collisions. He might have chosen to enter (he ‘voluntarily’ performs the stunt) and have some control over the outcome (he tries to perform the stunt well), but the choice he makes is made under duress (he has to perform the stunt to make a living; the alternatives to make a living are bleak) and his room for action is rather limited.
Part 2: Avery
Avery’s story begins when Luke’s story ends. In a dramatic showdown between Avery and Luke, two shots are fired: Avery’s shot kills Luke who falls out of the bedroom window, in which he is sitting. Luke’s shot, by contrast, injures Avery’s leg. While Avery is quickly publicly pronounced a hero, doubts about Avery’s heroism are equally quickly raised as Avery wakes up in a hospital bed. Accordingly, the film focuses on the discrepancy between Avery’s own assessment of his heroism and the portrayal of his heroism by others in its second major part. This adds to the previous discussion of fate insofar as there can be competing narratives about one’s fate: While according to one narrative, someone may have been destined to become a hero, that is, made of the right stuff all along, another narrative may be more nuanced. Here, it seems that the movie at least in part takes up a methodological problem in regard to fate and character that Walter Benjamin identified in “Fate and Character.” When assessing an agent’s character and fate, we rely on signs, and these signs cannot be understood as sure-fire causal indicators for what the signs signify. For instance, while a run-down appearance can denote a morally corrupt character, such a connection is not necessary. And likewise, the lightening bolt that supposedly confirms the Persian ruler Darius’ kingship according to Herodotus is not a sure sign that Darius’ rule was fated, even if it is conventionally perceived as such.
Avery very much enjoys his new hero status and the acknowledgement by his colleagues for his bravery in confronting a criminal. But to take this appreciation as indicative of the true state of affairs would be quite misleading. Avery severely grapples to come to terms with the consequences of his supposedly heroic deed. Already on the hospital bed, he inquires about Luke. Then, when talking to the psychologist, he furthermore has to admit that the fact that Luke, like he himself, has a two-year old son, affects him deeply: As a result of the shooting, his own son could have grown up fatherless like Luke’s son now does. Finally, when reporting back to active duty, Avery also squarely admits that he is not ready yet for active police work. As a result, he is instead assigned a lowly job as evidence custodian. In any event, while Avery admits in private that he is not ready to go back to the job, he brushes off any worries his wife advances. Furthermore, there is also no room for questioning the hero narrative – as his wife’s comments at the dinner table with Avery’s fellow police officers make clear.
If Avery is a hero at all, then, he is one with considerable cracks. This is further confirmed in the main plot that unfolds in the second part of the film dealing with corruption in the police force. After the shooting, a group of police officers around Pete (Ray Liotta) and Scott (Gabe Fazio) pick up Avery at his house and drive to Romina’s where they illegally perform a search. They find $14,000 that Luke hid and that Pete now illegally declares as unofficial severance pay for Avery’s injuries. Avery knows that this search is illegal and is visibly uncomfortable with what happens, but, at first, he does not do anything. In fact, it is only after he gets reassigned to work as evidence custodian and is insufficiently challenged by his new duties, that he tries himself to resolve the issue by giving the money back first to Romina and then to the police chief. Not wanting to be embroiled in what are subsequently revealed to be quite wide-spread illegal practices in the police department, Avery tapes his colleague Scott and so obtains hard evidence of the on-going corruption. Instead of directly going to the press with this information, however, Avery uses the evidence to leverage his own demands. He threatens to reveal all information unless he is advanced professionally. His boss acquiesces, and Avery, in the eyes of the media, is yet again a hero and model citizen. For the viewer, however, Avery also appears as a quite calculating careerist rather than as a clear-cut hero. And if a hero at all, then he is at best an accidental one, one who was at the right place in the right moment, which questions the usual hero narrative.
Part 3: Jason and AJ
The third part of The Place Beyond the Pines is set fifteen years after the two preceding parts of the film. It focuses on the story of Jason and AJ, that is, Luke’s and Avery’s sons. In the context of fate and character, this part of the movie explores the legacy the sons inherit from their fathers. Taken together with the other parts, this part suggests time to be cyclical, helping complete the sketch of a world, in which events repeat themselves at certain intervals.
At the beginning of the third part, Avery is divorced from his wife and his son AJ has grown up to be a teenager. AJ wants to live with his father, but because Avery is running for political office, the moment is rather inopportune. Nevertheless Avery takes his son in. In his very first scene with a speaking part, AJ visits the office of a school guidance counselor who asks him about himself and his move to Schenectady. AJ claims that his father asked him to move to the city, when in fact, he himself wanted to live with his father (as we know from an earlier scene with his mother). This scene echoes Avery’s scene in the hospital after the shooting. AJ is portrayed as having the same complicated relationship with the truth as his father. Just as his father could not quite remember who fired the first shot and so constructed a narrative to help his needs, AJ cannot quite remember why he moved and constructs a narrative around the event, which may be more favorable to him – although the precise reasons for his lie are not clear. Regardless, already this first scene of the third part of the movie suggests: like father, like son.
AJ’s interest in drugs makes him instantly connect with Luke’s son Jason at his new school. Neither of them knows about the connection between their fathers, and in fact, Jason, at this point, does not know much about his real father, not even his name. In any event, just as in AJ’s case, Jason is clearly Luke’s heir. The resemblance between the two in regard to certain behavioral features is almost uncanny in several scenes of the movie. For instance, Jason’s fixation on his bicycle resembles his father’s fixation on his motorcycle, and Jason’s pharmacy heist much resembles the bank robberies that his father committed. Again, like father, like son.
Figure 6. Luke on his motorcycle vs. Jason on his bicycle.
After immediately forming an initial bond, Jason and AJ are also almost as immediately involved in several violent altercations. After a party at AJ’s house, AJ beats up Jason, while Jason later pistol-whips AJ. It seems here that the movie suggests that just as Jason and AJ inherited certain features from their fathers, they also inherited the conflict their fathers were involved in: Their fighting only seems to be a proxy for a long-standing conflict between Luke and Avery that was never resolved. In short, the sons’ behavior and their conflict, the movie seems to suggest, has been fated. Events escalate when Jason finds out more about his father and about Avery being responsible for Luke’s death. When Avery arrives at his house, Jason forces Avery to drive into the woods with the intent of killing him. Held at gunpoint by Jason, Avery’s main concern is about AJ. Avery repeatedly asks about his son and Jason ultimately screams: “This is not about your son!” Indeed, for Jason, it is all about the wrong that Avery did to his father Luke, and not about any wrong done to Avery’s son AJ. The guilt from a prior generation is unresolved and is inherited by future generations, and the protagonists all carry the burden of the past.
While the movie thus suggests that future generations are involuntarily shaped by the decisions of their forefathers and can in fact be like them, The Place Beyond the Pines may be thought to be an optimistic movie – at least according to an initial reading. In the woods, Avery offers a genuine apology for having shot Jason’s father and this opens up the possibility of a new beginning. Rather than taking revenge on behalf of his father, Jason spares Avery’s life and leaves. In the last scene of the movie, Jason buys a motorcycle and leaves Schenectady. This may suggest that the conflict between Luke and Avery has been resolved and that we may overcome our fate. Accordingly, one might think that the cycle of conflict and violence can be broken.
Figure 7. The final sequence of The Place Beyond the Pines.
Interestingly, though, the ending is not quite as clear-cut as it seems at first. For one, the season has changed and it is now fall, which, metaphorically, often stands for decline rather than for a completely fresh, clean-slate beginning. Furthermore, while the worst in the conflict between the two families has been averted, it is not clear whether the conflict has been averted for good. Jason’s future is left unclear. On the road, he may become just like his father: He may merely repeat the life that his father led, succumb to his family heritage, and so ultimately not break the cycle that the protagonists are involved in. Perhaps Luke also had to leave the town he grew up in in the same way that Jason now leaves Schenectady. This might suggest that the movie is in fact a pessimistic movie: Fate will keep the upper hand.
But whether we have to see the movie as optimistic or pessimistic, I think we have to recognize that the movie operates with a quite different understanding of time: a cyclical rather than a linear one. Constant echoes between different scenes cinematographically reinforce such an understanding. I already mentioned some examples of these echoes above, for instance, between the scene that shows AJ’s first day at school and Avery’s awakening at the hospital or between Jason’s bicycle and Luke’s motorcycle rides. Furthermore, the cycle motive plays an important figurative role in the movie and is most emblematically featured in the opening scene, in which Luke performs a dangerous motorcycle stunt, zigzagging the paths of two other motorcycles in an iron sphere and which can be seen as a metaphor for the movie as a whole, that is, of the life cycles of the protagonists. But not only this: the movie also seems to suggest that future generations merely fill out the same role as their fathers. Luke grows up fatherless and ends up leading an unsteady life with his motorcycle. Jason grows up fatherless and may end up leading the same life as his father. Avery’s father has a political office and Avery follows in his footsteps. Everything progresses naturally; events repeat themselves at regular intervals and it is not clear if there is really an end to the cycles.
A cyclical understanding of time rather than a linear one, one that emphasizes place over time, is often attributed to Native American peoples. Accordingly, Donald Fixico argues that “‘Indian Thinking’ is ‘seeing’ things from a perspective emphasizing that circles and cycles are central to the world.” This is especially relevant for The Place Beyond the Pines because place also seems to be more important than time in many scenes of the movie and to be used to link thematic ideas. Take, for instance, Jason’s crib. It is the site of conflict between Romina, Jason, and Kofi, and so the origin of the scene, in which Luke holds baby Jason, but it is also the site where Romina hides the $14,000 Luke gives her, and so the origin of the scene, in which Avery holds baby Jason. Likewise, the ice cream parlor. It is the site where Romina, Luke, and Jason experience a semblance of familial happiness, and it is later the site where Kofi reveals to Jason the name of his father. The importance of place in the movie is furthermore emphasized by the title of the film. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is the English translation of the Mohawk word ‘skahnéhtati’, which gives the city of Schenectady its name, the place where the movie is set. The very title “The Place Beyond the Pines” may thus stress the importance of place (in Native American thought) and allude to it to counter the usual standard assumption to give a narrative preference to time.
Taking all of this into account, then, one of the most fascinating aspects of The Place Beyond the Pines is that it transports viewers into a world, in which time is subordinated to place. This world contrasts with the one that is grasped by traditional linear thinking. Accordingly, the movie cannot quite be captured in the binary of optimism and pessimism laid out in the two readings distinguished above. Instead, it should be seen as descriptive, as capturing a certain phenomenological nature of things, an underlying structure of the world, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. However, for the question of fate and character in the movie, the perspective of cyclical thinking is important insofar as it reinforces the idea that the characters of the movie are limited in their responsibility, even if it leaves open whether they are completely fated or have some means to break the cycle.
In this paper, I discussed Derek Cianfrance’s movie The Place Beyond the Pines in regard to its portrayal of fate, character, and cyclical thinking. The first part of the movie sets the stage by portraying Luke as a person whose actions are both in and beyond his control. The second part then features police officer Avery, whose character is at best portrayed as an accidental hero. Finally, the third part explores the legacy that future generations inherit. I argued that, on one reading, the movie is quite optimistic, suggesting that agents can shake off the burden of the past and begin anew. Considering the ending of the movie, however, The Place Beyond the Pines may also be read more pessimistically as a film that emphasizes in what profound ways legacy can shape agents. However, when one takes into account the whole the film, I argued that the movie ultimately endorses a kind of cyclical thinking, which leaves open whether agents are completely necessitated or at some point have the means to break the cycle, or perhaps some protagonists have the means to break the cycles and others do not.
Jan Maximilian Robitzsch is currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, having previously studied at the University of Cologne and the University of Paris IV – Sorbonne. His main research interests are in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, Social and Political Philosophy, and Ethics. More information on him and his work can be found on his webpage: https://www.jmrobitzsch.com
A more precise translation would be “human character is daimon”, that is, the guardian spirit that watches over the fate of human beings. However, here daimon is usually understood as a kind of metonymy.
Walter Benjamin, “Schicksal und Charakter”, in: Gesammelte Schriften II.1, ed. by Rolf Tiedmann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977), 173: “wo Charakter ist, da wird mit Sicherheit Schicksal nicht sein und im Zusammenhang des Schicksals Charakter nicht angetroffen werden.” Translation mine.
The only scholarly works I am aware of are: Ana Craciunescu, “Space, Gender, and Economy in ‘The Place beyond the Pines’. Anthropological Considerations on 2013 Urban Inter-Action”, Messages, Sages, and Ages 1.1 (2013): 26-32; Raili Marling, “Working bodies, dislocated identities: class and masculinities in Derek Cianfrance’s films”, Genders 59 (2014). Academic OneFile, https://bit.ly/2xKneEF. Accessed January 12, 2017; Jennifer M. Barker and Adam Cottrel, “Eyes at the Back of His Head: Precarious Masculinity and the Modern Tracking Shot”, Paragraph 38.1 (2015): 86-100. None of these articles deals with fate or cyclical thinking in the movie.
Perhaps, they were even acquired in prison, for, as the viewer finds out in the course of the movie, Luke, at the beginning of the movie, already has prior convictions to look back on. In any event, there is no obvious story or meaning behind Luke’s tattoos.
I am thankful to an anonymous referee for pointing out to me that Luke can also be said to lack practical wisdom in the Aristotelian sense and to make the important mistake of confusing wealth for happiness.
On the cyclical nature of The Place Beyond the Pines, see Gus Cileone, “What is the significance of the cyclical patterns in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’?”, http://screenprism.com/insights/article/what-is-the-significance-of-the-cyclical-patterns-in-the-place-beyond-the-p, accessed August 1, 2017.
In a strange way, the Star Wars reference that Kofi makes (“I am your father”) creates a cycle of its own. After all, Luke Skywalker has the same first name as Jason’s father Luke, and we already know about Luke that he grew up not knowing his father. Another place that might be added to the list is the parking lot behind the diner where Romina works and she is given $14,000 two times: first (successfully) by Luke and later (unsuccessfully) by Avery. In any event, the list of places offered here is not meant to be exhaustive.