Not too long ago, I was over Ryan Gosling. I thought he was weak in last year's All Good Things, and though he was widely praised for his performance in Blue Valentine, I thought he was chewing scenery. But his work in Crazy, Stupid, Love and the new film Drive has me officially back on Team Gosling, and I'm leading off for Team Nicolas Winding Refn, the film's director. This moody, atmospheric crime flick has roots in gritty 1970s thrillers, but it's also an intense, contemporary picture that finally lets Gosling flex a little muscle.
In Drive—opening Friday, Sept. 16—Gosling plays a good-looking young man who exists on the fringes of L.A. By day, he does stunt work, driving cars for movie shoots, and at night he's a wheelman, doing getaway work for a variety of criminals as long as they keep to his extremely specific schedule. He's a loner, close only to Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grease monkey who keeps him in fresh rides. Driving is the only thing that really matters to Gosling's unnamed character—it's how he expresses himself, how he communicates. He knows that a car chase doesn't always have to be high-speed—it can also be subtle and clever. He's terrific behind the wheel, where he's in control of his own destiny.
That destiny takes a turn when he notices Irene (Carey Mulligan), the single mom living down the hall. There's a connection between them, but it's severed when her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaacs), gets out of jail earlier than expected. The Driver has no love for him, but he doesn't want to see harm befall Irene, so when Standard finds himself under the thumb of some hoodlums he knew on the inside, the Driver decides to do something misguided and selfless that will have tragic results.
One botched, bloody job later, he's looking over his shoulder for Shannon's masters, Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). Yes, that's the same Albert Brooks you know and love, but you've never seen him do anything like this. You may snicker at the idea of him playing a violent sociopath, but he's fantastic in the part.
Things go from bad to worse in a hurry, and the violence is bloody and intense. At the same time, though, the film is stylish and manages to walk a razor's edge between slick and grimy.There are no good guys in Drive, but it's hard not to pull for Gosling's character, who finds himself swimming in the deep end of the criminal pool. Still, he's not in over his head. Gosling's guy isn't the sort to panic or go loco. He's one tough customer, and when he's threatened, he acts the same way he does behind the wheel—calm, assured and menacing. He's up against an impressive collection of bad guys, but we know almost nothing about this blank slate, so everything he does is unexpected. There is a sequence in which he takes down a henchman that's so brutal and intense that you're likely to forget that the guy being assaulted with a hammer is in the dressing room of a strip club, surrounded by topless women.
Touches like that make Drive an interesting, well-crafted piece of filmmaking, bolstered by Gosling's inscrutable performance. On paper, that scene looks and feels exploitative, but while it's going on, you simply don't know where your eyes should rest.
Drive is clearly a child of Bullitt and The French Connection but still has room for Winding Refn's European flair. Like the twisted streets of Los Angeles the film worships, this movie is enticing and exciting because you know it's dark and dirty at the same time.
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