In Only God Forgives, the excellent, feverish new film by Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling says very little: maybe 15 or 20 lines, all delivered in a scared little moan except for one, which is screamed, loudly, at a woman. As far as performances in the movie-star solar system go, this one would seem to be somewhere in the outer realm, the planet that might just be an asteroid or space junk. “Let’s take a movie star,” you say to whoever is going to give you money to make a distilled bilingual revenge film set in Thailand with no clear heroes, “and let’s not give him any lines. It’ll be great.” Remember: There are no movie stars anymore, so the ones that do exist, including Gosling, are like gold wrapped in plutonium.
(As is often the case, Mark Harris is the right one here. Harris parries the “no more movie stars” hypothesis that’s become more or less gospel in cultural criticism and shows that, yes, of course movie stars still exist: they’re just different now, more specialized, less easily understood as ingredients in the brewing of a film.)
In Only God Forgives, Gosling plays a different type of cipher than the one he did in Drive—aside from sharing the whole Gosling-as-fetish-object core, in fact, Only God Forgives could not be any more different than Drive. Drive was a movie about the idea of heroes; Only God Forgives is a movie about death, men, cultural tourism, the doomed West, sons’ debts to their mothers, mothers’ power in general, the color red, swords, and evil. But as with Drive—and in the other 10 movies he has made in the decade since The Notebook made him famous in a weirdly different way than he is now—Gosling remains the epitome of movie-star cool.
Remember: There are no movie stars anymore, so the ones that do exist, including Gosling, are like gold wrapped in plutonium.
Gosling’s cool shows no work. Watching him through Refn’s harassing camera, we see a dude completely untouchable and bizarre, both masculine and weirdly beautiful. Throughout the first three-quarters or so of the movie, Gosling wears only black and white T-shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up, plus black jeans and black boots. Then he puts on a suit, not coincidentally at the same time he yells for the first and only time, and gradually sheds that suit. The clothes he wears have their own presence within the film: they, like the red walls, swords, dismemberings, and Kristin Scott Thomas’ chemical-blonde hair, all serve as dots that, when looked at all at once, give the movie its sheen.
In Only God Forgives, Refn created a film that many people have called terrible: like, not just bad, but pretentious, impossible to watch, stupid, dull. On the one hand, it’s understandable: Only God Forgives is film boiled down to a pop song, verse, chorus, verse, rhythmic and self-contained. (I think it’s the best movie of the year. Most reviews seem to miss the film’s screaming takeaway: Western arrogance and imperialism will be punished in the end.)
But Gosling, in his silence and broken face, performs the part of the son as archetype and prototype to perfection. And in the hostile reception, you can see how bulletproof Gosling is. Most reviews have blamed Refn entirely for what they see as the mess, with Gosling being only culpable for signing on; it’s Refn’s fault that he isn’t given more lines or more animation. What this way of thinking misses is the reason Refn leans on Gosling to be his vessel in the first place: he’s one of the few guys in film who doesn’t give everything away at all times.
ON THE OPPOSITE END of the spectrum from Gosling is Jake Johnson. Johnson made his bones alongside Zooey Deschanel in The New Girl; he has unimpeachable asshole bonafides, from the athletic voice to the malleable hair to the beery face. But Johnson has that Bradley Cooper ability to go from invertebrate dick to super-lovely guy in the span of a film, and it’s the latter version that comes to Drinking Buddies, the almost-immediately-devastating but never-not-charming new movie by mumblecore OG Joe Swanberg.
Most of Drinking Buddies’ press so far (currently available on iTunes and other on-demand services, while slated for theatrical release later this month) has orbited around Olivia Wilde’s pinpoint portrayal of Kate, the swaggering radiant dude-chick who, along with Johnson, Ron Livingston, and Anna Kendrick, provides the incestuous foursome that gives the movie its constant, at times almost unbearable tension. (Watching with two friends, I said at various points, “This is like watching a horror movie,” “I feel like I’m about to get punched in the face,” “ahhhhhh,” and “AHHHHHH.”) Wilde’s been rightly praised for unfurling up-until-now unknown reserves of vulnerability and power; she’s also been on the receiving end of that classic critical move, the blindingly sexist “she’s too pretty!” assault. (It’s best conveyed in this line from Nathan Rabin’s review for The Dissolve, right after he praises her “credible performance”: “Wilde possesses an exotic, otherworldly movie-star beauty that makes her a natural for popcorn fare like Cowboys & Aliens, Tron: Legacy, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but seems distractingly out of place here. Casting a glamorous movie star might be good for the film’s commercial prospects, but it harms its aspirations to verisimilitude.” Never forget, folks: Beautiful women are not allowed to be sad, and they’re definitely not allowed to get dumped.)
But it’s Johnson who carries the movie. Considering new kinds of movie stars, Johnson offers an attractive option: the charismatic dude who doesn’t have to be a clown or a god. He’s just, convincingly, a guy who you’d be happy to hang out with. Alongside Wilde, he is tender in the way that good men are toward women they respect and care about, and with Kendrick, he’s boyfriend-dopey but not cloying; he dotes but doesn’t embarrass himself. Building on the strength of his role in The New Girl and Safety Not Guaranteed, where he nails the part of eventually repentant asshole, Drinking Buddies should seal a coup for Johnson: believably cool famous dude. His is a cool you can understand; you might even have it, though probably not to the extent that Johnson does. If Gosling’s the ideal of movie-star cool, Johnson’s the working model.