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September 17, 2011

I want to start by asking, how freaking cool is Ryan Gosling? Across the board in film after film since last year he has calmly proven — with a minimum of self-promotion — that he is weapons-grade awesome. If the rumors of his immanent, hopefully temporary, retirement arre true, he will be sorely missed. And I will especially miss movies like Drive, where he is surrounded by an excellent cast who matches him, beat for pulse-pounding beat.

Los Angeles is a city primarily defined — for good or ill — in terms of cars. And this is somewhat ironic, for as sprawling and messy as the city is, a car is of course a machine. It’s operations are the product of a precisely ordered and finely tuned system, and this is exactly the sort of system that the driver (Gosling) understands almost intuitively. If you put him behind the wheel of a car, this man can do just about anything. He’s made a nice career for himself in a garage run by a former car-wrangler, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who gets him gigs driving stunts for the movies.

Shannon also hooks him up with other jobs: ones that involve driving getaway cars. And the driver approaches these with the same cool precision as anything else. He gives you a five minute window; anything outside of that is not his concern; he does not carry a gun; all he does is drive. Shannon has dreams, though; with the driver under his wing he thinks he can craft a great stock car racing team. He just needs the money, which is where his acquaintances, Bernie (Albert Brooks), and Nino (Ron Perlman). From their demeanor, though, you get the feeling this might not be a huge change of pace.

The driver is an enigma, but like a ronin in a Kurosawa film, he finds something to care for, to humanize him. In this case, it’s his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son, Benicio. Her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is coming to the end of a prison term, and while he was inside he racked up some protection debts which are about to come due, payable by Irene and Benicio. The driver decides to lend his services to help keep them out of harm’s way, but of course it’s not going to be as simple as that.

This is, above all, a cool movie. For a story about driving a getaway car, there’s surprisingly little action to be seen. The dialogue is languid; almost ethereally so, with immense beats between lines, calling back to La Nouvelle Vague. Gosling — the film’s champion — made a brilliant choice in approaching Nicolas Winding Refn to direct, as Refn’s cool, calm, and confident hand at the tiller brings out the depth, impact, and tension in scenes that could have become the shallowest of melodrama.

Equal credit is due to the cast. Perlman is, well, Perlman; nothing more needs to be said by now for him as a character actor. Brooks is astonishing, making me wonder why he’s been wasting his time with comedies all these years. Cranston, too, is perfect; he is as meticulous in his performance as his character is sloppy and luckless in his dealings. Yet again, he proves that his success on Breaking Bad is no fluke. Really, the only disappointment is Mulligan, who is sorely underused.

And, of course, there’s Gosling himself. He brings the driver to life in a way it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing. He obviously draws from a long tradition, including Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” and Alain Delon’s Samourai, but this strong, silent cipher loves in a way few of his predecessors do. There is joy in the driver’s world, just to know Irene and Benicio are in it. And, for the briefest of moments, there is hope that it will stay.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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