Gosling oozes cool as The Driver
The funky hot pink opening credits in the retro font Mistral signal this is not your ordinary car chase caper. Thanks to Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, working from a Hossein Amini adaptation of the James Sallis novel, this is a highly stylized, ultra violent movie with a title that belies its true nature.
In a weird way, I was reminded of “American Gigolo” with its nightscapes of Los Angeles, heavily synthesized soundtrack and moody protagonist. Only Refn truly knows his inspiration, although he evokes Quentin Tarantino by staging some of the goriest shootouts in recent memory. Blood and brains spattered everywhere in several scenes where the bad guys and some of the good guys succumb to large caliber weapons. It ain’t pretty.
The film’s stars — Ryan Gosling as the cool no-name Steve McQueen-like antihero (just call him The Driver) — and Carey Mulligan as his love interest, Irene, are both ubiquitous screen presences lately. And while its easy to imagine Gosling’s attraction to the material, the female lead is a harder fit for Mulligan, whom you might picture more in a classy drama instead of single mother and coffee shop waitress.
Gosling’s character, a quiet loner, is a stunt driver for films and television by day and a getaway driver by night. He asks no questions; he just drives, and he does that very well, never losing his cool even as the LAPD helicopter gives pursuit as it does in one of the opening scenes.The nature of his aiding and abetting activities preclude romantic entanglements; even so, he is drawn to a new neighbor (Mulligan) with a small boy and takes them for drives through L.A. But she is very married and Standard (Oscar Isaac), her husband, is getting out of prison in a week. Soon enough he has involved Driver in a caper with a gangster moll accomplice Blanche (Christina Hendricks), but it goes bad — very bad — and now Driver is on the wrong side of a local crime boss and his partner.
The title and occupation of the main character indicate a movie saturated with car chases, but not so here. Refn uses them sparingly along with the austere script treatment, a minimalist’s dream. What car chases there are transcend the ordinary with high risk, high speed driving and stunts that benefit from precision choreography. While a large team of men and women are credited with the impressive action, Gosling also logged a fair amount of time behind the wheel performing his own stunts.
The story is pretty standard with Gosling’s character going up against the local mob in a showdown where few are left standing. What amps up the average is the casting coup of Albert Brooks as the bad guy, Bernie Rose. Once a B-movie film producer, now running his own crime syndicate, Bernie is ruthless, amoral and sort of charming. For Brooks, usually the funny guy, this is a welcome departure and a giant step away from type casting. Ron Perlman plays Nino, his partner and pizza-joint owner whose greed and stupidity cause a double cross robbery set up to spin out of control. And Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” takes the role of Shannon, an unlucky mechanic who is the closest thing to a father The Driver has.
Refn has crafted an über-cool, hip film with a unique style that elevates it beyond the usual offerings in this genre. Instead of mindless car chases, there is actual thought and purpose to the action framed elegantly by Newton Thomas Sigel. And the thinly drawn characters and virtual lack of backstory keep the focus on the here and now, kind of like Gosling’s character. We never learn who he is or why he is so withdrawn, but it doesn’t matter really. Just “Drive.”