Spoilers follow for Blade Runner 2049.
Something curious happened to Ryan Gosling in 2011. The Canadian actor finally broke into the mainstream with a triple-whammy of star-making turns in Drive, Crazy Stupid Love, and The Ides of March, but that year also marked the point in which he all but stopped exploring his range as an actor—the type of range that chameleonic peers like Tom Hardy and Jake Gyllenhaal have built careers on.
Since that time—in which the "Hey Girl" meme featuring Gosling as a sensitive dreamboat blew up and the decision to name Bradley Cooper that year's Sexiest Man Alive instead of Gosling was met with actual protests at People's office—every character of his has comfortably slotted into one of two similarly alluring categories: crowd-pleasing, comedic cool (The Nice Guys, The Big Short, La La Land) and icy, taciturn cool (The Place Beyond the Pines, Gangster Squad, Only God Forgives).
Gosling's latest film, Blade Runner 2049, finds Gosling in the latter mode as K, an appropriately terse character moniker for someone whose acting style has been reduced to the equivalent of a shrug. K is one of the film's replicants—organic androids built for slave labor—but it's too easy to say Gosling plays the role blankly just because K is a machine.
In the original Blade Runner, the replicants were memorable oddballs, with the playful naiveté of children and the lethal cunning of sociopathic adults. In 2049, the new replicant models are designed to be more placid and subservient, but Dutch newcomer Sylvia Hoeks manages to display insecurity and brutal disdain beneath the cold exterior as villainous robot Luv.
As K, Gosling appears little changed from his stint playing the similarly restrained Julian in Only God Forgives, the unknowable JB in Song to Song, and Sgt. Jerry Wooters in Gangster Squad, another glorified mannequin for Gosling's stylish threads. Gosling isn't distant and impassive in 2049 because he's playing a machine, but because that's just the actor's default now: cool, mysterious, inhumanly ripped. 2049 is a stunning work of science fiction, but fans of Ryan Gosling the actor—as opposed to Ryan Gosling the superstar—may leave the film wondering what happened to the man who, once upon a time, would gain 60 pounds just to play a part he ultimately didn't even get.
After six years of impossible cool, it's easy to forget that Gosling once risked ridicule. The performances of pre-superstar Gosling are impressively diverse and un-starry: He was a hateful and self-hating neo-Nazi in 2001's The Believer, a rudderless drug-addicted schoolteacher in Half Nelson from 2006, an agonizingly shy small-town office worker with a sex-doll girlfriend in the 2007 comedy Lars and the Real Girl, a neurotic and needy house-husband in 2010's devastating drama Blue Valentine, and a disturbed and potentially psychopathic rich kid in that same year's All Good Things.
Those characters are pathetic, pitiful, far from desirable. Perhaps most important, they're uncool, and they happen to be among the most memorable and affecting of Gosling's career.
Drive, a gruesome LA crime thriller from filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, gifted Gosling another plum role: a hardboiled, inscrutable antihero in the vein of peak Steve McQueen.
At this point, the Driver—a tight-lipped getaway man who doesn't even break a sweat when stomping a rival goon's head into goulash—was still a one-off, and Gosling approached the fresh challenge with apparent relish. And he's superb as Drive's avenging angel: sexy yet legitimately dangerous, compelling even though frequently repulsive. But Drive, along with Gosling's ab-flashing role in Crazy Stupid Love, successfully repackaged the actor as an edgy-yet-marketable heartthrob, a role he's insistently inhabited ever since.
Some of the films that Gosling has appeared in in the past six years have been remarkable: The Big Short is biting political comedy-drama, La La Land is a modern musical masterclass, the divisive The Place Beyond the Pines and Only God Forgives are primed for future cult followings, while Blade Runner 2049 is arguably an instant classic—but the actor hasn't been the highlight in any of them. In playing the same subdued notes across all his recent parts, Gosling has sacrificed variety and raw emotion.
Now, Gosling only plays one of two characters—and with each "new" iteration, recycled from parts he's played before, he makes even less of an impression. As the now risk-happy Jake Gyllenhaal continues to learn from the mistakes of 2010, a year in which now-forgotten flops Prince of Persia and Love & Other Drugs failed to position him as a boilerplate Hollywood hunk—Ryan Gosling's willingness to push himself as a performer since his breakout year has disappeared.
Of Gosling's post-2011 roles, only The Place Beyond the Pines—Gosling's second collaboration with director Derek Cianfrance after Blue Valentine—satisfyingly yielded the goods from the actor because the character of biker rebel 'Handsome' Luke Glanton deconstructed the post-Drive ideal of Gosling as an enigmatic Adonis. In that film, Gosling's romantic, self-consciously iconic character's unwavering subscription to notions of invincible outlaw cool, along with his predictability and preoccupation with what makes him cool, ultimately results in his downfall. One can't help but think that Gosling could learn a lesson there.
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