Hollywood has an interesting history of heartthrobs. For an actor to find his way into a category defined by Cary Grant, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Idris Elba, Gregory Peck, Denzel Washington, etc. requires a level of attractiveness and a knack for picking attractive roles that appeal to big with audiences. However, all those aforementioned leading men were eventually able to grow out of those images to make fascinatingly diverse filmographies.
Then there’s Ryan Gosling, who just can’t seem to cleanly shake away from his roles like Noah Calhoun in The Notebook or Jacob Palmer in Crazy, Stupid, Love. His portrayal of Noah launched him into the Hollywood heartthrob status, while the film itself made perhaps an equally or more lasting impression on pop culture. The bedroom scene between Gosling and Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love even managed to make an already iconic movie moment even more famous. Discussing the actor with my friends and family members, I disocvered these are the roles, movies, and moments that are most frequently brought up. However, the same discussion between deep cinema divers, I find that movies such as The Big Short or Half Nelson would be commonly mentioned, or his performance in Blue Valentine, or just the opening of Drive. This is not to say that people who haven’t watched any of his other movies can’t be a fan, but for the uninitiated, here are the five roles that I think show the substance that might outshine even Gosling’s looks and his charm.
Blue Valentine – Dean Pereira
There’s something about Gosling and heartbreak. There was evidently a draw to seeing Ryan using his hearbtreak to build a house that eventually leads him to not be heartbroken in The Notebook. And then fans lined up to see him use his masculine aggressiveness to not be heartbroken (yet still ending up even more aggressive and heartbroken) in The Place Beyond the Pines. Blue Valentine is the film that manages his skill for being broken in a raw and meaningful way. Playing husband and father Dean Pereira, Gosling displays a range of personalities, the character a naïve and hopelessly-romantic young adult growing into a forceful and slightly delusional thirty-something husband. Gosling acts opposite the equally amazing Michelle Williams. His fits of anger abruptly followed by his pleading for reconciliation are piercingly realistic and upsetting to watch. It’s a film and a performance that will break your heart, “for better or for worse.”
Lars and the Real Girl – Lars Lindstrom
Perhaps there are two brands of Ryan Gosling; one where the movie paints him a monotone character where a traditional script might call for someone charismatic (a la Ides of March and Gangster Squad), and then there’s the Ryan Gosling that exudes charm and earnestness with whatever plot he’s given. In Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling delivers a deceptively nuanced performance as Lars, a man who projects life unto a sex doll and forms a relationship that an entire community buys into. It isn’t a kinky rom-com; it is a sweet film about love, intimacy, and the self-imposed obstacles we place between ourselves and those higher states. Gosling shows a lot of restraint and sincerity in developing the character from his anxiety-filled days as a recluse, to the charming budding romance between himself and the sweetly innocent sex doll. His journey and performance in the film is extraordinary, and meaningful in ways audiences might not expect and other actors may not have delivered.
Drive – The Driver
“There’s no good sharks?” Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character asks in reply to Benicio, a child, basically saying all sharks are automatically the bad guys. If he’s wrong, Ryan Gosling is that good shark in this film. His quiet and collected demeanor is difficult to analyze, and comes off as threatening to some (if not most). However, the slick film (like its hearthrob lead) presents surface appearance that might distract from the simple substance beneath. Sporting a white leather jacket and driving gloves, “Driver” isn’t defined by backstory or plot; he’s defined by movement and the neon light in which Director Nicolas Winding Refn paints him. Within a few minutes, Gosling can display the cold and calculating vibe of hitman in a crime/thriller movie, the scariness of the slasher in a slasher film, or the compassionate and (excuse the word) driven nature of a traditional protagonist. Real or not, he’s a real human being.
The Believer – Danny Balint
Only recently did I discover Ryan Gosling’s rhythm, with films like The Big Short and Crazy, Stupid, Love working to turn it into real energy. However, I would argue Gosling has still yet to top the verbal and kinetic energy he displayed in his first leading role: Danny Balint in The Believer. As Danny, Gosling portrayed a Jewish man (born and raised) who is extremely hostile towards Jewish people. He understands them which feeds his hate; he hates them which feeds his understanding. He walks the fine complex line very meticulously, while delivering anti-Semitic monologues that are both disturbing and arresting in their believably delivered poison hate. Watching him jump through mental hoops to justify his hatred yet practice devotion to Jewish traditions offers a baffling portrait of the human capacity to senselessly hate. Fifteen years later, and it’s still one of Gosling’s strongest performances.
Only God Forgives – Julian
Gosling brings back the quiet and restrained approach he so expertly displayed in Drive in Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives. Only this time, he’s a character in search for inner-peace and justice, refraining from acting out of emotion as much as possible. The film is a weird one, neither plot-driven nor necessarily visually-driven, and Gosling’s performance can sway a person one way or another with regards to the overall film. However, to me, Gosling is as good as ever here, and this is the least amount of dialogue he’s ever been given in a starring role. He oh-so-subtly displays the burden of a man of spiritual longing. It’s definitely his most unconventional role (which says a lot when the guy once convinced us that he loved a sex doll), and he is still able to turn it into perhaps his best performance, at least the performance that best illustrates his ability to break free of the heartthrob image.