Crack addiction. Bloodied knuckles. Face tattoos. Crushed skulls. When you think of Ryan Gosling, what comes to mind? Probably not the career he's spent making movies that poke at the darkest, most outré recesses of human consciousness, and almost certainly not Lost River, the Gosling-directed David Lynch homage he debuted two weeks ago at Cannes. No, more than likely it's something like this:
Or possibly, this:
Of all the celebrities who hit the tabloids each week, it's hard to imagine an actor whose public persona is more at odds with the movies he or she makes. George Clooney is an effortlessly suave playboy known for playing effortlessly suave playboys; Brad Pitt, though fantastic when cast against type, is mostly a tried-and-true leading man. Even Johnny Depp, Hollywood's favorite "weirdo," wears his questionable ascots on his sleeve.
Meanwhile Gosling, whose breakout acting role was as a Neo-nazi terrorist in The Believer, remains both an Internet sensation and US Weekly sweetheart, all while starring in some of the most difficult movies in recent memory. For most of the public, however, Gosling is seen as the opposite of controversial: wholesome, handsome, Mormon. It may be going out on a severed limb here, but it doesn't seem likely many Young Hercules fans have seen Gosling reach inside Kristin Scott Thomas' womb in Only God Forgives. They probably aren't even aware of it. Why is that?
For better or worse, Gosling's public image is mostly defined by two things: First, he's ridiculously handsome and charming, which makes it difficult for people to notice how totally weird he actually is. Second, he's an A-list movie star with virtually no A-list movies to his name.
In the 20-or-so movies he's made since 2000, only Remember the Titans grossed over $100—a typical metric for blockbuster status. While The Notebook took in more than $13 million across 2,300 screens its opening weekend, Half Nelson, a minor masterpiece about a crack-addicted teacher, took in $53,000 and only opened on two screens. Drive, which came closest to making the world aware of his darker leanings (it opened strong at more than $11 million) may have reinforced Gosling's hipster cred, but still didn't redefine his image; a few dormroom posters can't cover up two decades of Tiger Beat collages. Remember Drive's marketing, mostly full of Gosling staring deeply into Carey Mulligan's eyes or driving his muscle car? It's not surprising moviegoers wanted their money back when they realized Drive wasn't a Fast and Furious knockoff.
But for people who’ve grown up on the Internet, Gosling's face has become as ubiquitous as LOLCats and Rickrolling. While he may be game to joke about his fan art on talk shows (again: charming!), it's between filming scenes of desperation and dread. Even playing in his macabre indie rock band Dead Man's Bones just seems to bolster Gosling's reputation as the ultimate super-sensi heartthrob. You remember the lacrosse star from high school who also played Hamlet? He’s Ryan Gosling. The college poetry major who also joined a frat for some reason? That's Gosling too.
The Tumblrers pasting Andrea Dworkin references on Gosling's face may have seen The Place Beyond the Pines, but by the time it filters down to Ellen viewers, Gosling is just the guy from Crazy, Stupid, Love. Even Gosling's real-life escapades are re-packaged to support his heroic (but sensitive!) good-guy image. Remember when he saved that woman from getting hit by a taxi (Jezebel: "He's got to be some kind of artsy superhero")? Or stopped that streetfight (Jezebel: "Watch Ryan Gosling, Hero, Break Up A Random Street Fight")? It's all part of a narrative that's too juicy to let go of.
But to say that Gosling has spent his career actively trying to shed his Mickey Mouse Club roots just isn't true. If he didn't want to have at least a modicum of mainstream recognition, he'd never agree to stuff like the shirtless "You look photoshopped!" scene from Crazy, Stupid, Love, or even take mainstream movie roles at all. (An aside: How come so few people seem to understand that the guy he plays in Crazy, Stupid, Love is supposed to be a total dick?) He also wouldn't go on MTV News and laugh about his memification or show up at awards shows clearly dressed better than every other dude there. Gosling cares. He's like Bruce Wayne, if Batman made artsy revenge thrillers instead of fighting crime. While other actors’ narratives must shift for them to be taken seriously (Matthew McConaughey comes to mind), 33-year-old Gosling can still be Noah Calhoun when he needs to be.
When Gosling showed up at Cannes this year with his directorial debut, it was at best regarded as bizarre and at worst totally unwatchable. Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, and Eva Mendes (but not Gosling himself), Lost River is a surreal fantasy set in a crumbling Detroit-esque dystopia. After years of internalizing the rhythms of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, Gosling has apparently made a film that’s just as strange as anything his mentor had previously tackled. "In all my years at Cannes, I've never been lost in a nightmare like this. So props to Gosling for originality, but it's just too fucked up," tweeted First Showing's Alex Billington; others, such as The Telegraph's Robbie Collin, weren’t so kind: "Ryan Gosling confuses 'making film' with 'assembling Tumblr of David Lynch & Mario Bava gifs'. Dumb-foundingly poor.”
Like Blue Valentine and Only God Forgives before it, it's unlikely that Lost River will be seen by anyone outside Gosling's already dedicated audience of devotees. But that's the way of the Gosling: always keeping America under his thumb while simultaneously crushing its hand with a hammer.
Nathan Reese (@NathanReese) is the News Editor at Complex City Guide.