The Ryan Gosling Sort-of-Paradox, or why it’s surely possible to gather your girls together, eat Ben & Jerry’s and watch one guy stomp another to death on screen
[There are spoilers ahead. Also sexism, probably.]
There are women I know who have only seen one film starring Ryan Gosling. For them, he will always be the cute guy in the 2004 weepie The Notebook. As they have warm memories of that movie, and continue to see pictures of Ryan looking handsome on the red carpet, or incongruously bemuscled in photoshoots, they wouldn’t mind catching him on screen again. But reviews of his later work don’t really promise a comfortingly teary experience. Someone I work with learnt how true this was when she saw Drive. Not that she didn’t like the film – no, she really enjoyed the synth-and-neon saturated thriller. But she was also still in shock the next day about some of the things done by Gosling’s character in that movie.
Many years ago, I wrote a Winona Ryder-inspired piece titled Actors Aren’t Indie Bands. My point was that it is generally wrong to look for some kind of unifying aesthetic vision behind a actor’s career choices. They can end up in a flick because they like a bit of variety, because they wanted to work with a friend, because their agent is putting pressure on them, because they have a debt to a bookie or the taxman, because they want to be in something their kids can see, because they want to be 2,000 miles away from their husband or the back-room pick-up who keeps calling. Or because they genuinely feel that Goodfellas and My Cousin Vinny are of equal worth.
But Ryan Gosling seems to be unusual on that count. Since his post-child actor career effectively began with him playing a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer, Gosling appears to have steered away from obvious crowd pleasers, and only made an incursion into biggish budget movies for the all-guns blazing Gangster Squad.
He’s played a bloke in love with a sex doll. He once starred as an idealistic white middle-class teacher working in a school full of impoverished black and Latino kids… which could sound like Dangerous Minds until you discover that Gosling’s character is addicted to crack (and also a left-wing intellectual rather more attuned to the massive contradictions of his situation than your standard Hollywood inspirational educator).
In Drive, Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver who turns his particular skills to profitable criminal ends, has a capacity to be extremely violent and is a lifelong loner who experiences a brief moment when he feels part of a family. In The Place Beyond The Pines, by contrast, he plays a carny motorbike stunt rider who turns his distinctive skills to criminal ends, has a capacity for extreme violence, and is a lifelong loner who experiences a brief moment feels he’s part of a family. You can tell the difference because in Drive he has light-brown hair and sports ’80s-does-’50s bowling alley chic while in TPBTP he has a bleach job, wears his T-shirts inside out and has the kind of DIY prison tats usually seen on someone drinking Special Brew in a Glasgow park at 11am.
(The poster above severely undersells them).
The common ground between Gosling’s roles (rather than the two movies themselves, which are in some ways very different, although both terrific) suggests he is aiming for a persona that is a chunk Steve McQueen, a seasoning of Lee Marvin and a side order of the young Mickey Rourke. It’s admirably minimalist, pleasingly unshowy and reactive.
At least in The Ides Of March, a fairly high-minded film about the dark inner workings of an election campaign, he looks presentable. As it also stars George Clooney, I suppose it could serve as a tub-of-ice-cream at home movie, although the only tears obviously on offer are those mourning the inherent corruption of American politics and the media.
Blue Valentine (obviously) has the word ‘valentine’ in the title, is a relationship movie and contains, as showcased in the trailer, a cute scene with Ryan playing a ukulele as Michelle Williams dances. But the song he sings is, ominously, You Always Hurt The One You Love. The presence of Williams, too, is a hefty clue to abundant gloom on offer, culminating in a sex scene of somewhat terrifying bleakness.
So The Notebook is an outlier in Gosling’s career, a red herring. Basing your impression on what he does in that film is like only having seen Tom Cruise in Magnolia* or indeed Michelle Williams in the perky-teens-unravel Watergate comedy Dick, before her career fully became a (frequently impressive) slough of despond.
And yet, Gosling remains a favourite with the more excitable parts of the showbiz media, suggesting one of two things - people are happy to fancy him despite not seeing his movies (making him, in a strange way, something of a male counterpart to Scarlett Johansson, whose dried-husk screen anti-presence surely makes her only attractive to those who never see her films, or not post-Lost In Translation, anyway). Or, alternately, and this is what I am going with, many of the women who loved him in The Notebook also love him in the movies he has made since, even when (especially when?) he crushes a man’s skull with his boot or stabs someone in the face with an Allen key. Of course it’s possibly to be enthralled by both weepies and moody ultra-violence.
Meanwhile, I still feel I like Gosling’s films more than I like him. Oh, he is usually good, and was very good in Half Nelson. I like how quiet he is on screen. But I don’t think I have ever thought he is the only person around who could have done what he did in a film. And when he arrives on screen, I don’t get that subliminal sense of looking forward to what he is going to do for the next two hours in the way I do with, say, Jeff Bridges or Philip Seymour Hoffman.
He makes good choices, though. You could fill a decent weekend mini-festival of interesting Ryan Gosling films. I’m looking forward to Only God Forgives, his second film with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, the man who made Pusher, Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, Pusher III: I’m The Angel Of Death, Bronson, Vahalla Rising and the not inaccurately named Bleeder. That’s the cinematic company Gosling keeps. Yet no matter what atrocities he commits on screen, there always seems to somewhat ready to say ‘But he’s soooo cute!’
I think that’s probably Gosling’s blessing, but I suspect he might see it as a curse.
*Although as I’ve argued before, Frank TJ Mackey, the self-help guru peddling the art of using and discarding women played by Cruise in Magnolia, is just the inner creep at the heart of all other Cruise characters allowed out into the open.