That all Nicholas Sparks adaptations spiritually take place in red-state America goes without saying. But The Longest Ride may be one of the first to literally set up an apparatus wherein staying put in the sticks and getting your cutoffs muddy with your hayseed bae is the unquestionable right choice, and jetting off to New York City to thrive in one of the world’s cultural centers is most definitely the wrong one. Sophia (Britt Robertson) is the bookish, wrapped-too-tight sorority girl forced to contemplate that decision, and the rolling abs of Luke (Scott Eastwood) are responsible for decelerating her reaction time. Winding down her last semester at a North Carolina college before an internship at some minimalistic art gallery presumably thrusts her into the venal world of Sunday supplements and brunch boots, Sophia is pulled away from her laptop to enjoy some rowdy distraction at the nearby bull-riding competition. Like any bookworm, she starts vibrating uncontrollably at the sight of ropey cowboy butt squeezed into distressed 501s, and it’s not eight seconds before Luke, fresh out of another successful saddle sesh, tosses her his Stetson and cell number.
By the end of Luke and Sophia’s eventual first date, The Longest Ride is already living up to its title, but because Sparks is a slave to formula like a baby to a bottle, their budding courtship is forced to take a backseat to another of the author’s tales from the flashback crypt. The two save an old man (Alan Alda) from a burning car wreck amid a mild thunderstorm, and before drifting out of consciousness, the man adamantly urges Sophia to save the box of love letters he has in the front seat. Rather than return to her life, she starts binge-reading the stash in the waiting room, studiously ignoring the potential parallels between the old man’s love story and her own. One doesn’t have to be as cynical as, well, myself to note how perfectly Sparks it is that Sophia’s emergence comes from reading someone else’s clichéd romantic prose, or that while she’s learning what love means, her taciturn, barrel-chested slab of beefcake is off flexing his sturdy frame, recklessly straddling one rearing mass or another and risking his neck in order to prove his physical worth.
One year earlier, Luke was violently thrown from a practically undefeated bull-nado and spent two weeks in a coma. Disregarding doctor’s orders, his only current priority is to buck his way to the top. Though Luke’s fretful mother is quick to sermonize, “It’s just eight seconds, and you could be wasting a whole lifetime,” it’s not like the film offers up any other explanation for Sophia’s attraction to him. Her interests are consistently debased, as when she invites Luke to meet the art dealer she intends to intern under, and his reaction to the collection she brought from New York to display to prospective buyers is a smirk: “I think there’s more bullshit here than in my field.” (Even the dealer seems ludicrously charmed by his folksy dismissal.) In contrast, the supposedly selfish bouts Luke spends riding bulls are filmed in loving, time-warping, snot-whipping slow motion, cementing his competitive quest as the unambiguous lynchpin of his gallantry. That is, if the hysterical sequence crosscutting their first sexual tryst with clips of him teaching her to ride an oil barrel suspended by ropes didn’t already underline that point.
Like with any Sparks saga, the personal stakes are never tangible. Despite his characters’ insistence that love is so difficult, that it requires such excruciating sacrifices, not only do things somehow work out for his protagonists, things come through with flying colors like Jesus Christ personally saw to it. And in this case, approximately two months’ worth of halfhearted faith in love’s eternal reward results in, you guessed it, love’s eternal reward. When, at the aforementioned art exhibit, Luke stands in front of an abstract canvas and regards its squiggly lines as nothing more than just that, consigning all interpretation to posh poseurs with too much money, there’s little doubt where Cormac McCarthy-bashing Sparks’s allegiances lie. The Longest Ride is truly no country for old ambiguity.