Refreshingly ambitious and original, this L.A.-set drama-thriller revolves around a Hollywood stunt-driver who moonlights providing Transporter-esque getaway services for criminals. The ace opening scene shows, with minimal dialogue, the expert handling with which the nameless protagonist (referred to as, “The Driver”) handles driving invisibly, deals with police involvement, and keeps dangerous criminals in check with his cool, unflappable machismo (right down to his signature scorpion-emblazoned power jacket). Soon after, two parallel plotlines develop in the up-until-this-point simple life of this driver; his boss/manager is using him to leverage a stock car deal with a local shady millionaire, just as he is developing feelings for his cutesy single-mother neighbor and her adorable son, Benicio. Watching these two seemingly incongruous throughlines eventually intersect is one of the elements that makes this a thoroughly unconventional, yet continually riveting flick. Inevitably, The Driver runs afoul of various nefarious forces around Los Angeles, and must use his cunning, his ride, and his street-wise methodology to navigate his way out unscathed.
One of the first things you notice about the movie is how visually-propelled it is. From its first neon-soaked moments, you are pulled into this unique version of L.A. with its sense of style, mood, and quiet; while there is ample dialogue, and well-written stuff, at that, the most memorable moments of the film involve long stretches of intense silence between characters and sporadic, perfectly-orchestrated action. This caused several audience members at my screenings to shout things like, “Do it, already!” or, “What the fuck is goin’ on?” during key moments of sustained silence, but I have a feeling that was due more to the preconceived notions the audience had of the film than the impact of the scenes themselves. These moments, along with the masterful use of L.A. at nighttime, the hard-boiled dialogue, and the bittersweet, merciless plot twists recall films like The Stunt Man, Heat, Vanishing Point, and (perhaps obviously) To Live And Die In L.A.; not a shabby bunch of films to crib from in the slightest, and director Nicolas Winding Refn throws back to them with equal parts homage and trailblazing progression, adding a 2011 twist to those classic themes, archetypes, and stylistic flourishes. The ending, in particular, has a sense of tragic melancholy that is rarely seen in the current generation of action flicks, character-based or otherwise, and is an example of the unconventional, consistently surprising tone of the film.
Aside from the sexy, glowing-off-the-screen sense of style, another thing that defines this film is its cast, led by Ryan Gosling in his first perfect mainstream role. Utilizing his tall, skinny, mumbly talents to his full potential, his Driver character is equal parts tough, human, and 100% capable; Gosling has had trouble reconciling his movie-star good looks with his emotive, intelligent physicality, but here, both of those qualities are both working for him like gangbusters. He could have probably carried the film on his shoulders, alone, but, thankfully, he is backed up by a pitch-perfect ensemble of actors. Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan plays his neighbor as a sweet, but beaten person, perfect for the care of gentle tough-guy Gosling. Bryan Cranston, hotter than hell due to his 3-years-in-a-row Best Dramatic Actor Emmy wins, is perfectly cast as Gosling’s boss, the crippled, permanently-indebted garage owner who is in with both the Hollywood crowd and the criminal underworld. Ron Perlman is scary and effective as a local Jewish underboss/pizza shop owner, Christina Hendricks is a mysterious, haunted femme fatale, and Oscar Isaac is simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic as Mulligan’s imprisoned husband. The crown prince of the supporting cast would have to be Albert Brooks as Bernie, the tough, pragmatic millionaire backer of Gosling and Cranston’s stock-car. From his first scene, he is a harder, more embittered version of the prototypical Albert Brooks character, but the escalation in his demeanor as the story progresses is nothing short of awesome; Mr. Brooks could have a serious resurgence as a dramatic actor if his work gets the exposure and acclaim it deserves.
There has been an ’80s-themed aesthetic tacked on to the marketing of the film, and that, along with the star-power behind the picture, as well as the title, give the impression of a different, more typical and digestible film than the one that is ultimately presented. While there is action, and a neon-dominated aesthetic that recalls the rain-soaked urbania of films like Blade Runner or Black Rain, the mood is more intense and contemplative than fast-paced and nail-biting. Immediately after the film, I literally complained, aloud, that the ideal environment to see this film would be at home, or in a similarly intimate setting, where the silence of the film could be allowed to truly creep off the screen and command your attention. It is in these moments of quiet emotion that set the scale for the events of the film, and make the tragedies, and ultimate conclusion, of the film all the more moving and effective. Simply put, this ain’t Fast Five. Not to knock Fast Five, which is the perfect example of THAT kind of car movie, but if you are disappointed with this film’s intense, broody sensibilities, that film would probably satisfy your lust for engine fuel, in spades. If the films I’ve mentioned above have any resoncence, or if you just crave a more elegant, purely visual action-y film, set in a distant relative of Michael Mann’s L.A., this is one of the more original, signature flicks of its kind in recent memory.
Highly Recommended for fans of the cast, gritty, character-centric crime films, or the classics listed above. Had this come out a few weeks ago, it would have been a lock for one of my favorite films of the Summer (probably edging out Our Idiot Brother), but as is, it would seem to be the must-see film of September ’11 (aside from the empowering with a capital P, I Don’t Know How She Does It, of course).
P.S. For shits I embedded the killer Kavinsky track that plays over the opening titles, Nightcall