Ryan Gosling is good at a press conference. The media event for his new film, Only God Forgives, started a solid 30 minutes late, leaving a roomful of reporters — many of them already, to put it charitably, not wild about the film itself — annoyed. Yet when The Handsomest Man Alive appeared, flashed his smile, sat next to his director and fellow cast members, and began to joke around in that (slightly affected) regular-guy accent of his, we were basically putty in his hands. He is, it must be said, a charming fellow, quick with a funny line (when Winding talked about their reunion by saying “I’ve only had one girlfriend,” Gosling grinned and chimed in, “There’s gotta be a better way to express that”), serious about his work but keenly aware of when to add a moment of levity to the kind of press conference where the Scandinavian director can end up talking about how “a great many books have been written about the idea of what it would be like, having sex with your mother.” Gosling’s silent, bemused reaction in a moment like that says it all.
There are a lot of silent, bemused reactions in Only God Forgives, which reunites the actor with the aforementioned director, Nicolas Winding Refn; the two previously collaborated on Drive, and both films feature Gosling in the kind of roles you don’t expect to see a heartthrob play. Both are quiet, speaking softly and infrequently; they express themselves physically, though in this film, Gosling’s character doesn’t come out quite so well. It’s a strange, idiosyncratic movie, such a bizarre mixture of bloody violence, Eastern idolatry, and pitch-black humor that it’s a little surprising to see him in it.
But much of that can be chalked up to dedication to his director and friend. “Nic, after Drive, had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things,” Gosling said at Tuesday’s press conference. “A lot of big films, and still he was opting to go to Thailand and make this film that was going to be very challenging, financially and for a lot of reasons, and was sure to divide people.” It has certainly done that; reviews from its Cannes premiere forward have been mixed at best. Gosling is taking that response in stride. “I think the film’s like a drug,” he explained. “You either have a good trip or a bad trip.” (For the record, this viewer enjoyed the trip, bumpy patches and all, in no small part for being a rare summer movie where you don’t know where the hell they’re going next.)
He’s also not all that concerned about what brutal, violent films like this do to his image. One reporter brought up the “Hey Girl era” and asked how “we’re going to keep making memes of you”; he shrugged and said, “You always seem to find a way.” He’s only recently grown interested in making violent films, he says, not out of an interest in violence per se, but because “the reaction is so strange, much stranger than anything I’ve done before.” The way that extreme violence gets a rise out of an audience is “the most bizarre reaction I could imagine… I feel like I’m learning about it, I don’t understand the reaction to it, but obviously there’s a real hunger for it, and I think Nicolas understands that.”
That said, he’s watched violent movies for a long while, which is what led to the story about how he used to keep VHS tapes in his pants. “Do you really want to know about this?” he asked with a laugh, and of course we did. “When I was little, I saw Rambo: First Blood Part II and I took knives to school and I threw them at the kids. So my mother took me off R-rated films. So I got my hands on Blue Velvet, and I had to sneak it in my house, I had to stick it in my pants to do it, and it was very… just the idea of a film like that, that you couldn’t show anyone, that you had to hide in your pants, just felt good, and it made an impression on me that I wanted to make something like that one day.”
“Was it erotic?” a reporter asked. Gosling closed his eyes, smiled, and let out a breathy, “Yes.” And the room broke up.
Pressed for his thoughts on the Lynch classic, he replied simply, “I did like that movie.” But another reporter noted that we could be witnessing the birth of a new meme — at which point Gosling clammed up. “You’re right, you’re right, I should stop talking.”
Only God Forgives is out Friday in limited release.