Spoilers below for Blade Runner 2049.
Ryan Gosling has never been convincing playing the tough guy.
Maybe it’s that his icy demeanor is undercut whenever he speaks, sounding like he studied Marlon Brando a bit too much and for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it’s because his body bristles with anxiety and discomfort, as if he isn’t convinced of his own brooding. But in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, the contradictions in Gosling’s screen presence grant emotional weight to the film’s aesthetic pleasures, and at times, suggest a more complex film, one that truly grapples with the philosophical threads it suggests.
Blade Runner 2049 pushes its 1982 predecessor’s story three decades into the future. Its cityscape is more sprawling, teeming with people just trying to get by. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins takes full advantage of its settings, highlighting the neon-lit grime and sleeker surface with texture and detail that’s begging for a more thoughtful narrative to match its considerations. The film is remarkably ambitious in all it tries to accomplish, but never quite meets its aims. The story picks up several threads: There’s inventor-with-a-God-complex Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who’s hellbent on using his maniacally devoted creation, Luv (Sally Hoeks), to find out how Tyrell from the first film made his replicants capable of procreation; the return of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has cloistered himself in the ruins of a former metropolis; a love story between Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram made to please, and a replicant yearning for a soul (Gosling’s K).
Ultimately, it’s the central mystery being investigated by K that drives this story. During the opening, in which he kills another of his own kind (saying he “retires” them, as the film does, sounds too sanitized), K stumbles across a mystery that his superior, Lt. Joshi (an excellent and steely Robin Wright), worries will destroy the delicate balance between replicants and humans. Specifically, K discovers that a previous generation of replicants were able to reproduce — and there’s a child out there to prove it. That child ends up being the offspring of Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard. During his investigation, a series of coincidences and discoveries sparks hope within K that he is this child — and that perhaps he does have the soul he’s been yearning for. This sets up a stark contrast between K’s gruff pretense at work and the tenderness that defines him in private.
Gosling is at his best when exploring this contrast. There’s a striking contradiction in his face and body during the more action-oriented scenes, like when K has to wrestle for control from Luv, or fight hordes of people trying to kill him. Even in combat, he never seems convinced of his own stature and strength. Furthermore, he seems downright uncomfortable whenever the role requires him to win a fight or suggest the more traditional physicality of an action film. These fights tend to come across as a duty he finds no pleasure in. There is no grace, no personality when Gosling fights, which suggests a disconnect between who K was created to be and who he truly is. It also makes these scenes somewhat of a chore to watch. The most fascinating scenes in K’s professional life are those that allow Gosling to hint at the woundedness at the heart of the character.
The opening scene is one such example: As K kills the hulking, bespectacled, aging replicant Sapper Morton (an emotionally eloquent Dave Bautista), Gosling’s attention falls on certain details — the texture of the small, worn home; the boiling water; the grim color of the sky — for a beat longer than necessary. His performance suggests this care is as much a byproduct of K being a detective as it is an expression of his internal life — he is a man always searching for his place in the world, a place he’ll never find.
The dynamic between K and Lt. Joshi is similarly powerful. Wright is able to communicate that her steeliness is the genuine article — she’s a woman hardened by her years and deeply pessimistic about the world she inhabits, but is dedicated to its laws nonetheless. In the brief moments Wright and Gosling are onscreen together, it becomes increasingly apparent how much of K’s life is at the mercy of a persona that’s simply a mask. It’s a clever mask, meant to suggest what people expect of his new breed of replicants — dedication to their work, with a will of their own, but an inability to act too much on this will — but a mask all the same. These moments highlight Gosling’s strength as a performer: playing taciturn and highly vulnerable men who feel ill-suited for the brutal work before them.
Gosling’s elegiac tenderness only falters when it’s set against the film’s inherent misogyny. An important aspect of K’s life is his love and dedication to the bright-eyed Joi, a hologram programmed for his pleasure and desires. When he comes back to his small apartment near the beginning of the film, its door riddled with slurs about his nature as a replicant, Joi flutters between various personas — the picture of 1960s domesticity, and a buoyant girl ready for a night on the town in a slinky silver dress. Unfortunately, the writers and actors play this relationship straight, never teasing at the obvious, uncomfortable gender politics (K has sentience and consciousness while Joi does not); his performance in these scenes feels similarly hollow.
Gosling is at his best when he eschews the rote brooding you’d expect of a character in a cyberpunk dystopia of this ilk, and instead fleshes out the grief K feels over his condition and soullessness. When the narrative offers one of its few novel additions — a somewhat clever subversion of the Chosen One narrative, in which K learns that, despite his desperate hopes, he isn’t the special replicant child of Rachael and Deckard — Gosling leans into the depression that colors his character, growing more forlorn as the film marches to its conclusion. Watching Ford and Gosling onscreen together suggests an evolution of masculinity within the Blade Runner films, one that exists along a continuum of noir leading men, from those failing to hide their tenderhearted nature to the solemn figures who make stoicism an art.
In this way, Blade Runner 2049 has the mind of science fiction, but it has the heart of a neo-noir. Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 creates men pitched toward anxiety — over their place in the world, their power within it, and how uncomfortable they are with the emotional costs of survival. The films don’t explore this tension enough. But Deckard and K, as well as the actors who portray them, suggest men at opposite ends of the noir spectrum. In the original film (which has multiple versions, including one with voice-over that makes the noir stylings even more apparent), Ford plays Deckard as a cynical, guarded figure. At times, he reminds me of a colder, less wry version of noir figures like Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden, who bristled with machismo underscored by a dark underbelly in films like Odds Against Tomorrow and The Asphalt Jungle. This is a man who keeps his emotions buried deep, which is as much an expression of professionalism as it is an act of survival.
Meanwhile, in Gosling’s hands, K is a walking wound, echoing the kind of men that mark my most cherished noirs, like Humphrey Bogart’s searing turn in the 1950s black-souled In a Lonely Place. (Although, to be clear, he does not reach those heights.) The gruff exterior is merely an act, hiding how uncomfortable these men are with their central nature. It’s a wonder K convinces Lt. Joshi — or anyone else — of his dedication to his work. He often seems curled into himself, solemn to the point of depression, so still he almost blends into the muddled walls of the halls he walks. Like Ford, he’s a bit too humorless to fully capture the qualities that men in noir often have, but he pays homage to a genre of aching men who put on a performance of grizzled masculinity to survive the hard world they navigate.