Ryan Gosling Transcends Ryan Gosling

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.

Whiteness Claims No-Man’s-Land in Wind River

Nestled in snowy hills, a man watches a fraught scene through the scope of his sniper rifle: Native American tribal police, an FBI agent, and the private security crew of an oil rig are caught in a standoff, their fingers inching toward triggers. The parties vie for control of the situation, each claiming jurisdiction over the land on which they all stand. It comes as little surprise that the eventual gunfight ends with dead natives, a heroic white man, and a literally bulletproof white woman. It’s America’s past and present running its course.

The question of jurisdiction and authority blankets Wind River, on-screen and off. The film fundamentally revolves around the socio-political dynamics of an Indian reservation, but its writer and director, Taylor Sheridan, is not indigenous. He is white. That’s not an automatic deal breaker, to be sure—but Sheridan’s construction of the film makes his whiteness inescapable. Wind River ultimately buries the notable fact that indigenous actors play all of the film’s indigenous characters—Gil Birmingham (as Martin Hanson) and Martin Sensmeier (as his son Chip) are particularly stellar—beneath the tired tropes and myths of white saviorship.

The film has not one white savior, but two. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, hunts predators that terrorize the Wind River Indian Reservation’s livestock. He has ties to Wind River through his ex-wife—an indigenous woman who grew up on the reservation—and generally seems welcome among its residents. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), on the other hand, is more overtly other. She announces her foreignness with each under-dressed shiver in the brutal Wyoming winter.

Wind River’s winter not only reveals that Banner is an outsider, but also suggests that Lambert is exceptional in his whiteness. Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson indulge in wide shots of Lambert in the snow, wearing only white, identifiable solely through his face and movement. The result is a melding of Lambert and his environment—he is intimately, almost mystically in tune with nature; he is at home in the frigid wilds that drive other white men mad; he is a master hunter. It’s while tracking a well-fed mountain lion that Lambert finds the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow) frozen in the snow. Hanson, it turns out, had been best friends with Lambert’s daughter—who, years earlier, had died under similarly mysterious circumstances.

Cue the arrival of Banner, sent to figure out if Hanson was murdered, and thereby determine FBI involvement in the investigation of her death. Over the course of the film, Banner grows from green to seasoned—but it’s difficult to get excited about her character development given Wind River’s less generous treatment of indigenous women. Natalie Hanson, for example, experiences characterization only post-mortem; Lambert tells Banner that Hanson was tough, and that she survived the frost longer than most would have. But what good is that to her? The sole sequence in which Hanson is alive—a flashback—subjects her to unnecessarily graphic sexual violence. What’s more, the film’s three other credited indigenous female characters are allowed only to embody familial fracture. At one point, a text overlay states that “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” But for a movie apparently intent on advocating for indigenous women, Wind River has little use for them unless they’re dead or grieving.

Wind River’s inadequate characterization also extends to the reservation more broadly. The film rightly frames the reservation’s destitution as a thoroughly systemic phenomenon, and there are, undoubtedly, real-world analogues to Sheridan’s depiction of squalor and dead-endedness. But pervading Wind River’s understatedly triumphalist framing of Lambert and Banner’s investigation is the notion that the only thing capable of slowing the reservation’s ever-downward spiral is white intervention. And although the film, by making both its rapists and its avengers white, suggests a racial reckoning—an assessment of whiteness by whiteness itself—it doesn’t truly have such a reckoning in mind. Wind River’s project is concerned more with the personal than with the institutional, which leads the film to end with little changed beyond interpersonal relationships. The reservation and its inhabitants remain hamstrung, and Lambert and Banner remain supremely free to come and go. Indeed, through Lambert’s heroism, Wind River does more to absolve whiteness than to condemn it. Whiteness emerges as natural, ever-salvageable. It is divine.

Eventually, Lambert consoles Hanson’s father, Martin, who is wracked with grief and on the verge of committing suicide. Martin confesses to Lambert that he doesn’t know the proper way to put on his “death face,” a decorative mask of paint that the soon-to-be-departed wear. His face is painted blue and white, but it’s profoundly severed from tradition, a makeshift ritual devoid of context. There is no one left to teach him how to leave this world. Lambert can’t talk him through that.

The past year has thrown the question of artistic authority into sharp discussion. In a way, Wind River resembles Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a painting of Emmett Till at his funeral. Both works portray non-white victims in order to invert whiteness, to wield it for creation rather than destruction (albeit, in Wind River, creation through the destruction of evil), to bridge difference rather than invent it. (Of course, Till actually lived and died, whereas Hanson is fictional—but countless indigenous women live and die without notice from white America.) But, due to either execution or context, both Wind River and “Open Casket” center white actors: Lambert and Banner as saviors, Sheridan as supreme empathizer, and Schutz as lightning rod. To communicate with the pain of others is one thing; to set it as a backdrop for the redemption of whiteness is another.

Wind River is a striking, compelling film, which makes its unsatisfactory social politics especially disappointing. Sheridan and Lambert seem genuinely determined to prove how un-white they are—in terms not of race, but of consciousness—and often act admirably as a result. But they stumble in tandem. The two men wipe blood from the snow, but fail to stop and think about the footprints in which they walk. The paths they follow are ancient. They chase the tracks of ghosts.

A Laundromat Theory of Ragnarök

The same impulse birthed both the washing machine and the atomic bomb. Invention is humankind’s way of rattling against time, of renewing and expunging, of saving and destroying. So man created the washing machine in his image, in the image of man he created it.

In a 1976 article titled “The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes that while housewives used to do laundry only once a week, by the end of the 1920s, “with an electric iron, a washing machine, and a hot water heater, there was no reason to limit the washing to just one day of the week.” The washing machine saves you time so that you can spend more of your life staring into it. It is a bringer of ever-quickening cycles; a prophet concerned less with doomsday than with pure velocity.

There is, ostensibly, a precise moment at which clothing in a washing machine becomes more clean than dirty—let’s say 50.1 percent clean, 49.9 percent dirty. Pinpointing that shift, however, gets increasingly difficult as loads of laundry take less and less time to complete. Perhaps in the future, when washing machines dot the Milky Way, a cycle will take mere seconds. A few breaths will separate the beginning and the end, filthy and fresh. For a millisecond, my clothing will be both.

Toward the end of its cycle, the washing machine spins at something resembling warp-speed. At that point, the items inside it blur into a single, colorless mass, hovering, quaking so violently as to float perfectly still. Time stops while the timer ticks down.

Staring at my laundry as it approximates timelessness, I’m sure that washing machines developed alongside spaceships, as externalities of the Space Race. But they did not; the electric washing machine dates back to earlier in the 20th century. The bug in my memory is a picture of Nixon and Khrushchev, surrounded by a gaggle of followers, watching a washing machine demonstration at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow on July 24, 1959. Ten years later, Neil Armstrong touched the moon.

The laundry spins. I think of human feet stepping on the cosmos, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar clicks into place. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway descend onto a planet where time flows sluggishly. After a few hours, they return to their ship, and find that the crewmember who had stayed behind has aged in normal-time. He spent more than two decades among the stars, wrinkling and graying. “I’ve waited years,” he says.

Inherent in washing machines is the hope that human beings can return things to how they once were. That humankind is capable of reversing not only time, but also hurt; that nothing is permanent, neither grief nor spilled wine. It makes sense that a belief in life after death marks so many faiths. Resurrection and reincarnation put us in the wash. They remake us, the same but like new. Salvation, supposedly, will be radically euphoric, all white robes and antigravity. But when Jörmungandr finally lets go of its tail, it will do so with a profound and devastating yawn.

Cleaning happens through destruction. Soap takes bacteria and dirt and sweat and obliterates them. To cut a nucleus into pieces is to pour detergent on the Earth, to rub stains out of mountains and concrete. It’s economies of scale.

Remember: what’s left behind has simply yet to be washed away.

Matthew McConaughey watches video recordings that his children have sent him. Time runs slowly in his corner of space, so he is pristine. But his children have lived their lives on Earth. He learns that his son has had and lost a child; that the grandfather of his children has died; that his embittered daughter is now as old as he was when he left. He listens to his son’s last entry: “You’re not listening to this. I know that. All these messages are just out there, drifting in the darkness.”

Despite perceived fluctuation—like the bereaved mourning how quickly the years go by after love and loneliness and the accumulation of dust—despite that, time on Earth is static. It passes in clockwork silence, subsuming everything. Leaves turn red and orange and brown, and fall. The tree will, one day, appear rejuvenated, and its new leaves will look like the old ones. But they’ll be entirely different, made up of different fibers and wet from different drops of rain.

There are millions of universes on Earth. They wax and churn and wane; they stop and start and breathe life and hold their breath; they dirty themselves so that their denizens can be clean. They eat quarters.

The timer approaches zero, slowly, stretching each second into the next. A string theory of molasses. I can’t help but watch the numbers. Their destination is absence; they exist to erase themselves.

In the laundromat, I am almost God.