This is the type of film that Quentin Tarantino might be making if he had followed the path of Foxy Brown. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, a man with a passion for crime films, and adapted by Hossein Amini from a short novel by James Sallis, this is a highly stylised neo-noir car film for smart people who dislike Fast & Furious.
By day, Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt-driver and mechanic working for Shannon (Bryan Cranston). By night, Driver is an excellent get-away driver for robbers, able to navigate night time LA with intelligence and skill. His life moves along without incident until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a woman who lives with her son in the same building. The two become close and Driver allows Irene and her son into his life but things spiral into violence when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) arrives home from prison and Driver agrees to help him in a heist to protect Irene.
Ryan Gosling gives a central performance from the same school of cool attended by Steve McQueen. It balances precariously above emotionally stunted because he spends most of the film with one facial expression, a tooth-pick in his mouth and a dead gaze but he pulls it off making us believe he has ice-water in his veins. Shannon comments, “You look like a zombie kid.” That’s the point, his life is his car which he loves and goes on night time drives instead of staying in his bland, lonely apartment. Then when he meets Irene his life opens up.
Irene as played by Carey Mulligan is the type of innocent a guy could die for. In her presence Driver finds himself taken out of the masculine world and there are a lot of meaningful stares and glances and heart-break in Irene’s eyes. The relationship between Driver and Irene is idealised in a series of sequences where they share time together in sun-streaked moments usually in Driver’s car and their relationship culminates in a kiss that transports the two into the realm of dreams.
Yes, Driver, who wanders around in a daze, is like those old film heroes who, when they let someone (typically a girl) into their lives, find chaos comes knocking at their door.
The change in the movie is a sudden gear shift from first to ultra-violence. Skulls come apart, people get mutilated, and the violence is shocking. Standing amidst or perpetrating most of it is Driver, the romance is his motivation. Gosling is scarily believable as a man revealing his inner-psychotic to protect what he treasures. He also convinces as a cool car driver in a number of thrilling chases, the first being the best as he displays a keen intelligence for get-away driving that includes stopping to park as well as going very fast.
Adding to the chaos is a brilliant cast from Bryan Cranston’s unlucky Shannon running with the wrong crowd, to the believably nasty but genial Albert Brooks and frustrated mobster Ron Perlman. Christina Hendricks (where have you been all my life?) is beautiful as the girl in over her head and it is the look on her face we share as we watch events spiral out of control.
One last note should be made about the soundtrack. In the context of the film, it adds to the magic, the dream. The pulsing electronic score ratchets up tension, the songs being the perfect modern ballads for our psychotic neo-knightly hero to live to.
Release date: September 2011
Running time: 100 mins.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac