He sits, and his leading lady sits beside him, her head resting in her hand, peering up at him tenderly. He doesn’t reciprocate. Ryan’s arm is draped loosely around her shoulders and he looks towards the sky, his brow furrowed, eyes searching. They’re indoors, what is he looking at? It doesn’t matter. This is clearly the face of a man in deep abstraction, someone who is mulling quietly over a thing of great importance. He sighs. ‘What are you thinking?’ she says. Ryan scans the horizon a little longer, and smirks a bittersweet smirk; the smirk of a troubled man. He exhales softly, still staring into the distance, as if he’s forgotten his line. Slowly he meets her eyes, and we see that his brow is thoroughly furrowed. ‘It doesn’t matter’. We swoon, and Ryan lights a cigarette or looks down at his feet wistfully. Boom, that’s a wrap; two million dollars in the bank, a couple of Best Actor nominations, and an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Ok, so this isn’t actually a scene from any Ryan Gosling movie (that I’m aware of), but it could be, couldn’t it? The furrowed brow, the tensed jaw, the sad, longing smile, and the vacant gaze that is meant to suggest hidden depths, but comes closer to representing the effects of frontal lobe trauma.
Like Matthew McConaughey, who before he transformed himself into the respected lead of Oscar-bait dramas was the tanned heartthrob of schlocky rom-coms, Gosling was primarily the charming and likeable lead in chick flicks of questionable quality, like The Notebook and Crazy Stupid Love. Then along came Drive, and the genial Gosling matured into a fully fledged Goose. Drive invented the template of Gosling 2.0: the brooding, self sacrificing, and silent loner. Unlike McConaughey, the habitual over-actor, Gosling goes the opposite route: he recedes into himself until the character vanishes. What we are left with is pure Gosling, underreacting to the plot’s vicissitudes and staring forlornly into the distance. And while Gosling’s performance makes sense in the context of the film, it’s important not to confuse this with good or demanding acting.
Watch the new Blade Runner film: I don’t know who you are, but I’d wager that if you looked like Ryan Gosling and were being paid an A-list salary for a few weeks of filming, you could play his character as fully as he does. Yes, he is playing a robot, but the film makes it clear that these ‘Replicants’ experience a depth of feeling and sensitivity. The vacancy in Gosling’s eyes fails to capture either robotic detachment or human alienation; all we see is a man trying very hard not to act.
Contrast this with Bill Murray’s natural, seemingly unforced loneliness in Lost in Translation or Isabelle Huppert’s deeply unsettling stare in last year’s Elle. When those actors relax their eyes we feel that something is accomplished; in Murray’s case a man who is absent from his own life, in Huppert’s a knowing presence that is hidden behind a remote, shark-like gaze. When Gosling ‘turns off’ in Drive or Blade Runner 2049, we feel that there is no distinction between character and actor, and not in a good way; his expressions and mannerisms are vague because his understanding of the character is incomplete (and in the case of films like Drive and Blade Runner 2049, the characters themselves are vaguely defined). Even in an excellent film like La La Land, very little is demanded of him but to brood, a task he performs adequately.
To be clear, I’m not trying to say that the man can’t act. If you want to catch a glimpse of the pre-Drive Ryan watch The Nice Guys, in which he plays against type as a bumbling, downtrodden private investigator. In roles like this, where he cannot use his pensive good looks as a crutch, he reveals himself to be a solid, if not exceptional leading man. But there are certain actors who having achieved great success become consistently typecast, though not necessarily in an immediately apparent way. Think of Morgan Freeman, a man who for the latter portion of his career has played kind, ruminative father figures and mentors. Johnny Depp seems doomed to play kooky, occasionally ominous weirdos that belong in Tim Burton films (even when Burton’s hands have been nowhere near the project). Benedict Cumberbatch has a clause in his contract that prevents him from playing anyone who’s not a tortured, brilliant sociopath. I hope that with the success of Drive, La La Land, and Blade Runner 2049, Gosling has not been irrevocably cemented as Hollywood’s go-to silent loner; that would be a waste of his talents, and of our time.