Every generation has one star that represents “the bad ass on wheels” archetype. It all started with Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Then, there was Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, and Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. Of course, there are a million more that I haven’t mentioned, but my point is that everybody and every generation has that image.
For the current generation, there is probably no one more emblematic of this needed icon than Ryan Gosling. Despite Gosling’s legion of teeny bopper fans (mostly coming from The Notebook), he also has a raw, nasty image that he has developed over the past few years. And coincidentally, this image has developed in two seminal films that both fall into the “bad ass on wheels” category. The two films, of course, are Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines.
The first film that cements Gosling as the “badass on wheels” of this generation is Drive. In this 2011 film, Gosling stars as a movie stunt driver that works for a down on his luck garage owner played by Bryan Cranston (all hail Walter White!!!!). But as dusk falls, Gosling moonlights for crooks that need his superior driving skills to pull robberies and other crimes off.
Starring as a character that is only known as “the driver,” Gosling and director Nicolas Refn tear down the boundaries of this age old genre. Gosling creates a modern day version of the classic Eastwood character, “the man with no name.” Like Eastwood, Gosling’s character leaves us disoriented, wondering if we as an audience should invest our feelings in a character that is equally capable of rage and heroism. Critic Tom Glasson writes, “Whether Gosling’s character is also a ‘hero’ or not, though depends on your understanding of the term…[He goes though] a somewhat emotionally ambiguous transformation from sympathetic nice guy to violent avenger that might seem out of place were it not just so impossibly, impossibly cool.”
On top of Gosling’s great performance, director Refn blends styles that are reminiscent of Top Gun and True Romance (both classic Tony Scott films). In the end, the audience is left with a film that will not soon be forgotten (and if possible a soundtrack that is even better). In recognition of the film’s classic appeal, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic says, “Suffice is to say that the movie is an homage to old car-cult B-movies such as Bullitt and The Driver, and that it starts slowly before accelerating to harrowing velocity.”
The Place Beyond the Pines
The second of Gosling’s paradigm performances comes in the 2012 film, The Place Beyond the Pines. In this film, Gosling is the perfect example of Tolstoy’s “a stranger coming to town” character, playing a stunt motorcycle rider that is traveling with the carnival. This powerful film opens with Gosling learning that he has fathered the child of a small town woman- played beautifully by Eva Mendes. In an attempt to reconcile their relationship and develop a bond with his son, Gosling resorts to robbing banks so he can put food on the table for his family.
Unlike Drive, in this film, Gosling creates an out and out criminal (only enhanced by face tattoos!), while still managing to make the audience fall in love with him. It’s an electric and magnetic display of talent that is usually reserved for all-time greats like Marlon Brando.
Critic Blake Howard writes, “Gosling is flying in Pines. Watching him as the hyper cool, tattoo covered Luke gives you a feeling like you’re caught beneath a brewing electrical storm; at times he literally made my hairs stand up. However, it’s not just Luke’s steely calm that makes the performance, it’s the frenzy with which his desperation manifests to give his son a better life that takes the character to another gear.”
With these two films, audiences have witnessed the emergence of a new cultural icon wrapped in an age old archetype. At just 33 years old, Gosling’s future is bright, and we can expect that he will only become even bigger.
Bottom line: If you haven’t seen Drive or The Place Beyond the Pines, I recommend that you go out and find those films…ASAP