Bulls do not make good dates.
I’m not trying to be insulting. It’s a simple fact. They snort. They ooze gunk from their noses. They have very little to offer in the way of conversation. Spend quality time with an angry bull and you’ll likely consider steak to be not just a tasty dinner, but a proper punishment.
Bulls are one-ton slabs of untamed nasty—as unlikeable as domesticated critters come. But Luke Collins loves ’em anyway.
No, check that: He loves riding ’em. He doesn’t just hang with these hideous hocks of hide; he climbs on their backs and holds on like grim death for eight-second stretches, hoping like crazy he doesn’t get hurled into the next state. No matter that one such bull—a spinning leviathan named Rango—knocked him clean into a coma. No matter that another such encounter could kill him. Luke just can’t stay away. He’s a through-and-through cowboy who takes life in eight-second spurts, even if each of those seconds carries with it the ultimate risk. Bull riding, it seems, is the only thing the guy loves.
Well, at least until Luke meets Sophia, a pretty and smart art major going to Wake Forest University. The two run into each other at a bull riding event, of course. She picks up his hat. He says keep it. And suddenly it looks like the handsome dude in the jeans and boots found someone besides Rango who can throw him for a loop.
But sometimes love is more like Luke’s favorite sport than we’d all like it to be—full of ups and downs and unexpected twists and jarring thumps. So when Sophia tells Luke she’s moving to New York City in a couple of months, it seems their ride together might be over before it begins.
As he drives her home from a romantic date, Luke spies something along the side of the road. An elderly man crashed his car through a guardrail, and it looks like the whole works is fixing to explode.
Luke hastily pulls the guy from the car, but the injured oldster seems more anxious about a box on the passenger seat than he is about his own condition. Sophia retrieves it—and finds that it’s stuffed with pictures of and letters to a woman named Ruth. As Sophia sits in the hospital, waiting to see if the old man will be OK, she sneaks a peak. And then, as the days pass and the man slowly recovers, she reads them to him—each word and phrase giving shape to a romance undiminished even after 70 years.
There’s pain in those letters, too. Lots and lots of pain. Seems you don’t need to get launched by a bull to get hurt.
The old man is Ira Levinson, a widower who still pines for the wife of his youth. In The Longest Ride’s flashback parallel narrative, we see the two of them when they first fell in love. Their relationship wasn’t always easy. Ruth, for instance, desperately wants a (large) family, so when an infection robs Ira’s ability to give her children, she tries hard to sacrifice that dream for a life with him. And when it seems their two-person family is no longer enough for Ruth, Ira sadly opens the door—showing a willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for hers.
“I love you so much I just want you to be happy,” he tells her, “even if that happiness no longer includes me.” Happily, after a short time apart, Ruth returns, and the two build a wonderful life together, even in the midst of disappointment.
“Love requires sacrifice,” Ira tells Sophia. “Always.”
It’s a lesson Sophia and Luke both, eventually, take to heart. Sophia sacrifices many of her own ambitions for her beau, and Luke, stubborn as he is, comes to realize that as thrilling as bull riding can be, it can’t hold a candle to having Sophia around.
Ruth tutors a young, neglected boy, and she and Ira would have adopted the kid if his current guardians would’ve let them. When the Levinsons say goodbye to the boy for the last time, Ruth tells him he can be anything he wants to be—to never sell himself short. (Decades later, Ira learns that the boy grew up to be a college professor, and that he believed he owed everything he became to Ruth.)
Ira and Ruth are Jewish, and we see them in the local synagogue. We hear a professor encourage his art students to incorporate their mistakes purposefully, and to not leave things “to fate or the Lord or chance, whatever you want to call it.”
Luke is an old-fashioned kind of guy, prone to proffering flowers and favoring actual dates over “hanging” and “hooking up” (even insisting on paying). But when Sophia takes a shower at his pad, that kind of upright sensitivity doesn’t stop him from joining her in the water. We see her tempt him, stripping while only halfway behind a door. Then the two spend a minute or two of screen time kissing and caressing and (it’s implied by way of expressions and positions) having sex. As they clutch and grope and entwine, the camera zooms in from different angles, showing lots of skin and focusing on all but the critical bits of their anatomies.) Two or three other steamy sex scenes are shown in rapid-fire order as they spend every second of their free time in bed, lounging around either naked or partly naked (always covered just enough for the film’s PG-13 rating to remain intact). We see part of Luke’s backside before he pulls his pants back on. We see them both undress and jump in a lake in their underwear.
Ira and Ruth take things slower back in the 1940s, but they, too, end up kissing passionately and then having sex in Ira’s father’s tailor shop, pushing aside fabric and thread to make room on the table. (We see Ruth wrap her legs around Ira.) They frolic in the ocean, with her top revealing cleavage and midriff.
Sophia’s sorority sisters wear revealing getups to the rodeo and in their house. One of them yanks down Sophia’s neckline in front of Luke to reveal more of her cleavage. Luke jokes with Sophia that her life in a sorority house must be all pillow fights in underwear. “We don’t wear underwear,” Sophia jokes back. The Wake Forest women ogle the cowboy as he walks by. One or two modern paintings contain suggestions of artistic nudity.
Bull riding is, indeed, a very dangerous sport. The tumbles can be spectacular, and riders can get seriously hurt or even die—elements the movie shows and stresses. Luke’s run-in with Rango is a violent affair, with the man getting spun into the air and then harried by the beast. When it’s over, Luke lies on the arena dirt, unconscious, blood streaming from his forehead. Another time, Luke’s thrown hard against an arena gate.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the threat and presence of death is very real to Ruth and Ira as well. A lingering, mournful scene shows that someone has died while sleeping. And among other tragedies, Ira is injured by a bullet while rescuing someone on a battlefield. (Blood stains their clothes.)
Four or five s-words. Also, one or two each of “b–ch,” “d–n” and “h—.” Jesus’ name is abused once; God’s is misused a half-dozen times (once with the aforementioned “d–n”).
One of Sophia’s sorority sisters gets plastered at a bar, saying that the odds of her throwing up are somewhere around 90%. Sophia, Luke and others drink wine and beer at parties and in bars. Luke pops pills for the pain. We see a Jack Daniel’s advertisement on a chute gate.
Bull riders gamble. Ira talks about how hospital food tastes like “warm spittle.”
Movies based on Nicholas Sparks books are like Thomas Kinkade paintings—pretty, sentimental and all so very similar. Just as Kinkade’s work always seems to be filled with flowering trees and thatch-covered roofs in sunset-dappled landscapes, so Sparks’ stories are filled with beautiful people perilously in love with someone in threat of imminent death. “Nicholas Sparks?” someone quipped when I told them what movie I was reviewing. “Well, you know someone’s gonna die.”
Amid that, The Longest Ride still serves as a love letter to love itself. And it’s not just infatuation or youthful passion that’s paramount here (although we get an eyeful of that). Ira, Ruth, Luke and Sophia show us the way to enduring, sacrificial love as well. Sparks’ movies speak to those who believe that love can and should last a lifetime, even if it’s not always easy. His vision for that, interestingly, isn’t so far removed from the Apostle Paul’s immortal musings on love—eternally trusting, hopeful, persevering.
It’s just that the way such flowering love is shown onscreen often runs counter to what the Bible teaches. While Luke bills himself as an old-fashioned cowboy, he still takes roll after roll in the hay with his pretty pardner. Even Ira and Ruth share intimate moments before marriage—in an age when such behavior was still scandalous.
In the 21st century, it’d be far more shocking—at least as far as Hollywood’s concerned—for two loopy lovebirds to not sleep together. Now, that’d be quite the twist for a secular romance in the 2010s, wouldn’t it? It’d be the Jackson Pollock of love affairs—a daring departure that might change the way we look at art and our world.
But Nicolas Sparks is not Jackson Pollock.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.