Hey Girl, You Need a Hero?

Image Credit: Focus Features
Image Credit: Focus Features

Just when we thought that sword-wielding, damsel-saving white knights had gone the way of Mitt Romney, here comes Ryan Gosling to prove us wrong. In The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance reteams with Gosling for a dream-like short film featuring his kinetic, richly colored visual style—which happens to be followed by two hours of mundane family drama that’s only marginally less depressing than Blue Valentine. A note to all directors: do not cast Ryan Gosling and then kill him a third of the way through your film unless you want viewers to spend the rest of the film wondering why they paid $12.50 to not watch Ryan Gosling.

Clearly, I was fully on Team Gosling before the film began, but even I was a little disconcerted about the fact that he appeared to be playing the same character from Drive. I realize typecasting remains a common practice in Hollywood, but STUNT DRIVER WHO SIDELINES AS A THIEF IN ORDER TO PROTECT A WOMAN AND HER CHILD is a pretty specific type. Both Gosling incarnations—the driver and Luke—are at turns sweet and psychopathic. While you understand the leading ladies’ attraction—it’s Ryan Gosling after all—you also feel the need to warn them that this guy will probably kill you in your sleep—and then compose you a poem—written in your own blood. It’s all very confusing. But what truly connects these two men is their sincere belief that they are twenty-first century knights slaying twenty-first-century dragons for twenty-first century damsels. The damsels in question, though, have very little to say in the matter.In an interview with Jeff Goldsmith in 2011, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn described his film as a fairy tale in which our blue-eyed hero defends his adopted family against an invading beast—aka Ron Pearlman. In Pines, Luke also takes it upon himself to “save” his ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), except he is saving her from the “evil” clutches of a kind, employed man currently paying for the house she lives in with her mother and infant son. Ron Pearlman, he is not. But Luke still labels Romina “his woman,” explaining that her current boyfriend should simply find his own woman “because that’s every man’s right.” When your hero begins invoking the logic of date rapists, you should probably proceed with caution.

Neither Luke nor the driver ever asks if his particular “woman” wants to be saved. Instead they simply assume that their version of reality is correct, never considering that the woman involved might have a different plan that doesn’t involve sleeping beside a guy who scores a little too high on the psychopath test. So Gosling just keeps showing up. Even when a restraining order is introduced in Pines, he still won’t stay away. In real life, this would be a nightmare scenario resulting from an OKCupid date gone horribly wrong. But this is Ryan Gosling. And not since Marlon Brando raped Vivian Leigh, have I watched someone behave so inexorably and still thought, “yeah, I’d hit it.” But Brando’s behavior was supposed to be repellant, and our attraction was supposed to make us question our own desires. Gosling, on the other hand, is supposed to be romantic.

Although Drive is obviously toying with our conceptions of heroic behavior, we are still supposed to view the driver’s concern for Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her child as redemptive—not creepy. His apparent empathy is supposed to make us question how someone so violent could also be so caring. We’re not supposed to ask whether this is actually empathy or merely possessiveness. Similarly, we’re meant to consider Luke misguided, but we’re also supposed to recognize that he’s the moral center of the film. He serves as the masculine standard by which the other men in the film are judged—especially Bradley Cooper’s Avery, whose lack of concern for his own son looks all the worse when viewed alongside the Gosling ideal of self-sacrifice and self-reliance.

Although Drive was one of my favorite films of 2011 and the Gosling section of Pines is currently set to make my top ten list this year, I would have preferred it if these heroic tales could have troubled their narratives a bit with women who actually speak. Mulligan’s Irene almost wins the most-laconic battle she has going with the driver—never once voicing an opinion. If someone kissed me in an elevator and then immediately proceeded to bash a man’s brains in with his foot, I feel as though I’d have one or two things to say. Mulligan is talented enough to show us that Irene is quiet but not vacant, yet she’s never aloud to voice any of the thoughts we see lurking behind that childlike exterior. Although Romina has one showy speech, in which she details the difficulties she faces being a single mother, she spends the vast majority of the film weeping while various men throw money at her. Existing solely in relation to men—her lover, her eventual husband, his killer, and her son—Romina, like Irene, is a beautiful cipher, who ceases to exist when a man exits the frame.

Both films are over two hours long, yet neither manages to pass the Bechdel Test. I don’t recall a single scene where two women were even in the same shot. I understand that Pines is a tale of fathers and sons and Drive is an urban western, but there is a woman in the middle of both stories—a woman who is probably pretty capable of taking care of herself. And herein lies the problem with contemporary versions of the hero story. It feels dated. Even Ryan Gosling can’t make us forget that in the real world women not only aren’t waiting around for heroes—they’re also likely to pull out that restraining order as soon as they see one coming.

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