Why Ryan Gosling’s Drive Performance Was a Career Turning Point - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Why Ryan Gosling’s Drive Performance Was a Career Turning Point

Every so often, there is a performance that forever alters the course of an actor’s career, showing their range and capability to push themselves into new roles. The performance opens up our perception as an audience about what they can do. It isn’t something you can fully know when you see it. However, when you are able to look back and trace the trajectory that followed it becomes clear: this role became a quintessential part of what they bring to the table.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive began the last decade with a very different performance from its lead Ryan Gosling. It is a primary example of how an actor can reinvent themselves into something new. This stripped-down story of a driver who gets caught up in a criminal underworld that will begin to collapse the simple life he worked to build is an art house film disguised as an action thriller. Not only was it a change of pace for the actor, it was a role he wasn’t even originally set to have. According to Empire, it was originally supposed to be Hugh Jackman in the lead as the titular Driver, which seems strange looking back now.

One could see how that would make sense at the time. After all, Jackman was coming off of both an acclaimed performance in the X-Men films, which had a lot of action, as well as films like The Prestige that also showed off his range. Gosling, meanwhile, had mostly been known for his performance in The Notebook, which is a film I have nothing against in particular, though it is certainly the polar opposite of Drive.

In retrospect, it is hard to imagine Jackman in the role as opposed to Gosling. That is not so much a knock against Jackman as it is a compliment to Gosling. He took a role that was both different in tone and style as it was in approach. Driver is an almost entirely silent type of fellow, a performance that required a jettisoning of what defined many of prior roles Gosling had previously played. He had usually been playing more smooth talking, vocally emotional type of characters. All that is gone here, and in its place is a role that would challenge what the actor was capable of. It was to our benefit even as it wasn’t what any of us expected.

On the film's tenth anniversary, it is worth taking stock of just how the former Mickey Mouse Club member rose to the occasion and the impact it had. It was an impact that reshaped our collective perception of Gosling from being more than just a pretty face into being an actor that could do a lot with very little. It proved to be a good choice in casting as Gosling was more than capable of handling the challenging role, even if it wasn’t one that general audiences would have imagined for him at the time. Any surprise that was felt at how the tone and acting were not what people had predicted it would be going in only benefited the story, injecting it with a sense of uncertainty that far too often is lacking in films.

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That is, unless you were expecting the more straightforward action film that the trailer portrayed. One person was so incensed by what they felt was a misrepresentation in the film’s marketing that they filed a lawsuit that, as of 2017, was still being litigated. While such a claim is clearly without basis, it speaks to just how Drive and Gosling’s performance is an enigma. Speaking for myself, the first time I saw the film was when I was in high school and made the decision to have it be a good flick to see on a date. After all, it has Ryan Gosling in it, he was just in that other romantic movie, right? That turned out to be a grave error when it comes to it being a good “date movie,” with moments of graphic violence and general sadness, though not when it comes to it being a good movie overall because of Gosling’s reinvention of himself.

It just can’t be overstated how much of a physical performance it is, with moments where a simple glance by Gosling is all that a scene will get. In total, he speaks just 116 lines in the entire film. Through the entire runtime of 100 minutes, that's barely a line a minute. It isn’t just the total number of lines he speaks, it is also how he says them. He says only 891 words, turning into about 7.68 words per sentence. As Gosling himself told the Los Angeles Times in 2011, this decision to speak less was an intentional one he made as an actor at the beginning of the shoot. It stemmed from how much talking he had done in Derek Cianfrance's 2011 film Blue Valentine.

“After Blue Valentine and all the press and all the talking for that movie and in that movie, I was tired of talking,” Gosling said at the time. “We also wanted to create an atmosphere of being in the car and the spell it puts you under, and talking pulls you out of that spell.”

That is precisely the impact Gosling creates in Drive. It is intoxicating and draws you in. The economical nature in which he speaks makes every line he does say all the more impactful. A key moment comes when he is at a diner and accidentally runs into someone he had previously done a job with. It is the quietest scene, though the most exemplary. When the man begins to ask him to do another job, Gosling interjects to stop him in his tracks. He speaks with a coldly threatening tone as he commands the man to "shut your mouth or I'll kick your teeth down your throat and I’ll shut it for you." It cuts through the silence with a chilling effectiveness, making it clear that his character has a capacity for violence that is boiling right underneath the surface.

Gosling’s once uncharacteristic silence itself speaks volumes, carrying with it a mixture of tension and uncertainty. The performance always teeters on the edge of being defined by the kindness he shows to those he cares for or unrestrained rage to those that threaten that existence. The shift between a small, kind smile to a cold glare is something Gosling delicately threads. The mask he created for himself in this role is unsettling yet enthralling. It is a mask that he still puts back on, wearing it as he did in Drive to suit the different needs of subsequent performances. He always makes it his own, though the hints of the performance he developed as the Driver are unmistakable.

A year after Drive, it shows up when Gosling plays the troubled Luke in Cianfrance’s 2011 The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling isn’t the main character, something revealed as the story goes on, though he slips the mask on when he is facing down moments of crisis that will soon consume him. He wears it again when he returns to work with Refn as Julian in the 2013 film Only God Forgives. Much more divisive than Drive, Gosling still wears the mask amidst the chaos and violence at hand. In Blade Runner 2049, the mask becomes part of Gosling’s embodiment of the replicant K trying to find his way in the world. It shows up again when he becomes Neil Armstrong in 2018’s First Man.

All these performances are different iterations and forms of what Gosling first began developing in Drive. It is more than him just being the “strong and silent” type. Rather, it is a unique way in which Gosling embodies vulnerable and uncertain characters that owes to his performance from a decade ago. It was the beginning of how Gosling’s characters used a mask to hide their fears with a comfortable yet tenuous state of being. It was not just a defining point in his career, but a defining acting choice that he has taken with him into every new role he steps into. Beyond being just an outstanding film, it is that enduring impact of Drive that is worth remembering.

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