An hour or so into his latest film, Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling steps up to the chief antagonist (Vithaya Pansringarm), looks him right in the eye, and poses a two-word question: “Wanna fight?” The two men step into Gosling’s boxing club. The star rolls up his tailored sleeves, undoes his immaculate tie, and puts up his fists. And Pansringarm just beats the bejesus out of him. He then spends the rest of the picture in rather startling face makeup, his golden mug all but unrecognizable behind all the bruises and battery — and this, fascinatingly, was among the first promotional images released for the film. Come see our movie, folks! Here’s America’s Sexiest Man looking like ground chuck!
At this week’s New York press conference for the movie, Gosling was asked whether that opportunity to play against his handsome type by spending the third act buried in makeup was part of what drew him to the project. “That wasn’t a part of the film initially,” Gosling said, explaining that director Nicolas Winding Refn works chronologically, allowing his stories to take new directions on the set. “When you work this process with Nic, you discover it… It just seemed to make more sense that I lose.” He framed it as a rebuke to the idea, but the disclosure that Gosling was actually part of the reason it happened suggests that, at least subconsciously, he was into the idea of getting his million-dollar face beaten to a pulp.
It’s not without precedent. Indeed, it seems a part of the typical arc for a particular kind of attractive modern movie actor: break through and become a star with roles that capitalize on good looks, then spend several movies smothering those looks in order to prove that you’re more than just a pretty face. Brad Pitt is the most obvious predecessor to Gosling; his bare-chested performance in Thelma and Louise and his dreamy golden locks in Legends of the Fall made him the heartthrob du jour, circa 1995. And then he savagely cut off those locks, going for a severe crew cut in the soccer mom-alienating Seven. But that wasn’t enough; he hacked his hair even shorter, hid his baby blues behind wall-eyed contact lenses, and cranked up the dirty/crazy for 12 Monkeys. For his trouble, he got his first Academy Award nomination.
The ultimate goal of a golden statue has prompted plenty of insanely good-looking people to “ugly up,” de-glamming to better showcase their acting chops, or at the very least their ability to portray people who aren’t insanely good-looking. Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Charlize Theron in Monster, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men — and, of course, Robert DeNiro, who pulled double duty in Raging Bull. First he got in shape so he could get the tar beaten out of him in the film’s harrowing, brutal boxing sequences; then he ate his way through Europe to put on 60 pounds and play Jake LaMotta in his later, heavyweight years. He won his second Oscar for the effort.
But an Oscar doesn’t seem to be Gosling’s ultimate goal here — if it were, he wouldn’t be spending his time on a movie as twisted, peculiar, and alienating as Only God Forgives. Yet the way his two-time collaborator Refn shoots him in the picture is telling. Even before he gets the ol’ once-over from Pansringarm, he’s photographed with a peculiar distance, often half-seen or lingering in shadow. It could be that Refn is merely treating his star as an enigma, an object to be considered rather than consumed. Or he could be slyly subverting our expectations of who Gosling is and what we expect from him, with the actor presumably complicit. He’s suffering for the sin of beauty. He’s probably tired of looking at himself, impeccably groomed and irritatingly handsome on magazine covers. Maybe he’d like to just see how he looks with all those smooth edges roughed over. And (even more masochistically), maybe he thinks we’re tired of looking at him too, and the idea of seeing this guy get his clock cleaned will draw a certain small (but passionate) portion of the audience. Don’t laugh; stranger things have happened in a world where Gwyneth Paltrow’s death became a selling point for snarkier audiences of Contagion.