Albert Brooks' character was once a movie producer. He describes his films as action-filled and sexy. Once a critic described them as European, he says. I'd call this intense actioner European as well, but not for the same reasons. The action is precisely planned in bursts in an otherwise quiet film. The tone never shifts but depending on what is going on it can be ominous or romantic. It's artful and bloody. It's visceral and elegant.
In an existential move harkening back to car movies of the 1970s like TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, the protagonist is simply known as Driver (Ryan Gosling, CRAZY. STUPID. LOVE.). He works for Shannon (Bryan Cranston, TV's BREAKING BAD) as a mechanic at his auto shop and part time as a stunt driver for the movies. Shannon wants to start racing cars and asks shady business man Bernie Rose (Brooks, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE) and Nino (Ron Perlman, HELLBOY) to invest in the young man. Moonlighting, Driver drives get away cars for criminals. He gives the thieves the same deal. A five-minute window, he doesn't carry a gun and he doesn't get involved.
After a job almost goes bad, saved by his superior driving and planning skills, the laconic young man moves to a new apartment. Two doors down lives Irene (Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). She's married but her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, ROBIN HOOD) is in jail. Driver watches over them. When Standard is released, he wants to go straight for his family, but trouble follows him. Driver wants to help. He shouldn't have gotten involved.
Gosling's performance is key to the film's success. He is quiet and stares, which can be awkward and creepy. A slight grin is all we get to know he likes anything. His distance seems to be forced like he's holding back great rage. We come to learn in graphic ways how true this is. Once he lets the shark out, he devours his prey completely. His simple, kind relationship with Irene and Benicio allows him to feel like a human being.
Gosling isn't the only perfect casting decision. Placing Albert Brooks in a role against type works wonders. In his business dealings, violence is not an uncommon part, especially when his partner Nino gets involved. In a darkly comedic scene, we get the sense that Bernie has been cleaning up messes made by Nino for years. Cranston makes Shannon a scrapper; a guy with limited resources looking for the next break. His friendly, down-to-Earth attitude hides the fact that he's probably screwing you out of something. Mulligan is just the iconic girl next door. The sweet young mother who doesn't really know what's going on, making Driver want to shelter her even more. MAD MEN's Christina Hendricks shuffles in as a robber and you know trouble has come to town.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (BRONSON) won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His vision is clear and he gets in a drives it to the very end. His lead character is a sociopath, who is trying to be a hero. He doesn't look like the bad guy, but you can't describe him as a good guy either. Refn takes his time developing Driver. The tone begins like a quiet character study of what seems like a lonely young man. The story rides on a melancholy soundtrack. But melancholy turns to eeriness in quick flashes of violence. They start as only verbal, but they grow in gruesomeness. Watch how masterfully he handles a long take of a close-up of Gosling at the end. He earns that shot by making it character based and not a gimmick to just toy with the viewer's emotions. And yet he's toying with our emotions and we love it. Refn handles it all with a cool intensity that mirrors his anti-hero precisely.
Refn handles the action with attention to character. The opening sequence as Driver flees from police helicopters using a police dispatch radio and the sports broadcast is ingenious. There is a chase along the canyons of Los Angeles that is as good as the chases in BULLIT. Unlike so many hipster, violent actioners, this film doesn't bludgeon you into submission, but lures you into a room, shakes you to your core and leaves you standing there thinking about what just happened. Iconic images stick out. A strip club, a bullet and a hammer. A racing jacket with a scorpion on the back covered in blood. Driver and Irene in an elevator with a man with a gun. And that scene is romantic to the point where it makes you hold your breath, because you know it is fleeting.
It's an original for sure. Driver is the kind of character who will be debated. Why does he do what he does? What drives him?