CAN RYAN GOSLING put a foot wrong? Judging by his latest trifecta – the recent CRAZY STUPID LOVE, the coming THE IDES OF MARCH, and this breathtaking LA pulp-thriller – he would seem, surely, destined for Oscar glory.
Here, the man of the hour is an unnamed stunt driver by day, a getaway driver by night. Evoking the spirit of Clint Eastwood’s iconic loner cowboy, the Man with No Name, with lashings of Steve McQueen’s brooding intensity, Gosling’s ‘the Driver’ says little as he cruises the back streets of LA, toothpick safely tucked under lip, with a hypnotic 1980s-fused, synth-soaked soundtrack to riff off. “I drive” he tells the crooks he services – but only for a precision-honed five minutes. Then he is gone.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakout film inspires a deep-seated sense of longing, love, shock and awe, as Gosling’s startling turn is slowly added to with impeccable, astute casting. AN EDUCATION’s Carey Mulligan (pictured above, with Gosling) is the young single mum named Irene, living across the hall: they’re unspoken glances are a lesson in exquisite timing. Sparks fly between the pair when, seemingly, nothing is happening.
Likewise, Albert Brooks – in a stroke of brilliant, far-from-type casting – oozes shrewd, menacing criminality as Bernie: the mobster that the Driver finds himself working for. Ron Perlman is also a delight, as his sidekick cum partner, Nino, while Bryan Cranston works weary resignation nicely as the Driver’s hussling mechanic mate, Shannon.
Yet perhaps the greatest surprise of all is MAD MEN’s Christina Hendricks (pictured, above), in the small but pivotal role of Blanche: a flame-haired accessory to a heist designed to clear Irene’s just-released, ex-con husband (W.E.'s Oscar Isaac) from prison debt. It goes horribly wrong. And that’s where the film shifts gears radically – and controversially – from would-be romance to high-impact violence. It’s a stark change that jars with some, yet resonates with many.
Refn himself won Best Director at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this long-awaited adaptation: a film loosely based on a 2005 novel that, at one stage, had Hugh Jackman in the lead (and Neil Marshall down to direct). And while Refn has admitted the extreme content may deter some – he grew up watching B-movies in the Marché (the underground bunker at Cannes, where traders hawk shlock ), while his father attended the red carpet affairs upstairs – the shift makes sense.
The Driver is a hero, albeit a violent one, acting out of a guttural sense of protection for his charges (Irene and her young boy, whom he befriends). It is a dark fairy tale, inspired by the brothers Grimm as well as a slew of classic 1970s and 1980s cinema (Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER, John Carpenter’s best works and early Michael Mann, among them).
During production, the director even insisted his cast and crew bunked up together. He and Gosling (pictured together, above) got to know one another by driving, at night, shredding dialogue from the script. The result is a aching yet brutal work of art, beautifully shot, and showing us a quiet, back-street side to Los Angeles that most have never seen. Crucially, the bright lights and skyscrapers of downtown are only glimpsed from afar. It is stylised, but with considerable substance just beneath its noir-heavy, pulp-thriller surface.
Gosling is now busily working on a string of other films – including two follow-ups with Refn (one being LOGAN'S RUN) – and only just last weekend was snapped canoodling with new squeeze Eva Mendes. What’s more, that much-mooted Oscar may well end up being for the George Clooney-directed, soon-to-be seen THE IDES OF MARCH, not this. Yet it is DRIVE, above all else, that reminds us why Gosling has been hailed as the new Sean Penn, even a 21st-century Brando. He is outstanding here: boasting an intelligently nuanced intensity that reverberates far beyond the pulsating rhythms of the night he so effortlessly inhabits. Drive is extraordinary. Do not miss it.
Critical Rating: 9/10.
DRIVE is in cinemas from Thursday.