A friend of mine loves to tell the story of when she saw Drive. The film, a neon spectacle of exploding and disintegrating and bleeding bodies, made her laugh. She says that she and her friends were repeatedly hushed, and insists that they were on the verge of being asked to leave. Now, Drive is not a comedy, and the humorous moments it has are few. But my friend didn’t need jokes. She had Ryan Gosling.
Gosling, star most recently of Blade Runner 2049, is quite accomplished. The “Accolades” section of his Wikipedia entry directs to a separate page—“List of awards and nominations received by Ryan Gosling”—but there exists a school of thought that questions his success. Its adherents promulgate a simple argument: that Gosling is a bad actor. They deride his facial expressiveness and his lack of facial expressiveness; they say that his looks are his only draw, and that he’s not that handsome; their sole non-contradictory criticism might be that Gosling, regardless of role, always just plays Gosling.
Keep that in mind.
Act I: Drive (2011)
Gosling, as “the Driver,” stands in an elevator with Carey Mulligan, as Irene, and a large man. (Warning: the scene is graphically violent.) The Driver notices a gun in the large man’s jacket, and pulls Irene behind him. Time slows, the lights brighten, and the Driver kisses Irene. Gosling is less an actor than a conduit for the score’s somber keys and synths, a surface against which light bounces; after the kiss, a foot stomping on the large man’s head, stomping, stomping, bloodlust embodied. When Irene leaves the elevator, distraught, the Driver sees his own barbarity in her departure. Gosling, sweating, is Cain, damned to wander.
A puzzling righteousness marks the belief that Gosling’s acting is overhyped. It’s almost iconoclastic—Gosling, as Hollywood pretension given human form, should be humbled. Google “Ryan Gosling bad actor”: although some top links praise Gosling, among the results are Reddit threads debating his acting abilities, similar discussions on other forums (“is ryan gosling the most overrated actor of all time?”), and a Deadspin article by Albert Burneko titled “Some Ryan Gosling Movies That People Like Actually Are Not Good.” In it, Burneko writes:
Ryan Gosling is a handsome man who is understood to choose good roles in ambitious awards-y movies, and then to not make many facial expressions in those movies, in a style of acting that we are meant to understand is “understated,” for which you’re then meant to signal your appreciation as a way of indicating refined appreciation for refined things.
So there’s faux-refinement, which manifests itself as appreciation for Gosling, and then there’s genuine refinement, which looks like smug condescension. Enlightened moviegoers don’t enjoy Drive—they derive pleasure, instead, from the knowledge that they are pure, immune to pulp and popular appeal, perched somewhere above Ryan Gosling and those foolish enough to like him.
Act II: The Big Short (2015)
Gosling, as Jared Vennett, pitches Steve Carell, as Mark Baum. Vennett is offering credit default swaps, a complicated piece of financial vulturism. He rebukes his assistant for standing too close to him, his words equally muted and venomous; he argues that his math is sound by saying that his Asian quantitative analyst, who speaks English, does not speak English; he uses Jenga blocks to depict the housing market crash, promising lush profit margins. Potential energy courses through Gosling’s suit, humming, eager to become kinetic, to colonize and privatize and ravage. Wearing the black wig that is his hood, he is the grim reaper, come to cut the Western thread.
The average actor memorizes lines, rehearses, and acts. But Gosling does something else: he shapeshifts. He is the point at which writing and direction and flesh intersect. Some say that Gosling studied Brando a bit too closely. It would be more honest to say that whatever force possessed Brando has found a new host in Gosling.
My aforementioned Drive-disliking friend told me that, because Gosling is a stereotypically handsome white man in Hollywood, he is a blank slate onto which people can project whatever they like. Maybe she’s right. There is indeed a mechanical distance that marks much of Gosling’s work. He often speaks less in words than in twitches, each subtle movement an invitation to forget that there’s a screen, a void, between him and you.
But if Gosling’s a blank slate, he’s an exclusive one. To put it plainly, Gosling is very white. He can appear to be manufactured, focus-group-tested. Perhaps the tension between disparate attitudes toward Gosling—between movie-makers and some movie-watchers—is nothing more than a microcosm of how inadequately Hollywood’s socioeconomic politics reflect those of the audience. But while contextualizing Gosling’s brand is important, evaluating him solely on his alignment with a certain Hollywood mold isn’t enough. He has earned, if nothing else, the opportunity to have his work speak for itself. Raise the curtains.
Act III: Saturday Night Live (2017)
Gosling, whose character doesn’t have a name (let’s call him Michael), speaks with Kate McKinnon, who plays his therapist. Michael bemoans the fact that the title of Avatar used the Papyrus font. When he learns that the sequel’s title is similarly styled, he flips a table. Capitalism and the preponderance of high-budget sequels infuriate him—as does the graphic designer’s sloth. He belongs to both Marx and Rand. The last few centuries swirl in the cauldron that spawned him.
Gosling does with his face what lesser actors can do only with the help of a monologue. You can feel his insides squirming and tensing, quivering against his jaw. He consistently melds human and amoeba. He’s something wearing Ryan Gosling’s skin.
Act IV: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Gosling, as “K,” a replicant (a near-human android), is tasked with exterminating outdated replicant models. Finding the remains of a replicant woman who died in childbirth shocks K, as replicants aren’t supposed to be able to reproduce. He remarks that he’s never killed something that was born; Gosling’s eyes are quiet maelstroms, each blink a shipwrecked plea. We believe that beneath the flesh of K’s face, under the tissue and blood and bones, lies something hard like metal but close enough to a soul. We’ve never seen the insides of Gosling, after all.
Actors are vehicles and means, masked and costumed capital. Their job is to affect. We pay for a ticket and we give the film a chance to change us. Gosling, however, doesn’t change. The things that power him are primordial. He doesn’t merely show you what you project onto him: he subsumes it. His signature deadpan stare isn’t a one-note crutch, but emotion in the aggregate. Gosling, for all his whiteness, is the color black, born either of light’s absence or of its total absorption. He makes everything look like nothing at all.