Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a man who lives to drive. He works as a stunt driver and a garage mechanic, and when he’s off the clock he’s the ultimate get-away driver. For that five minutes on the heist, he’s yours. Take any longer than that, and he’s gone.
He drifted into Los Angeles a few years ago, and asked mechanic Shannon (Cranston) for a job: race-car loving Shannon predicts big things for this kid, and tells local mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks) all about it.
Things look up too when Driver finally speaks to his cute neighbor Irene (Mulligan) when – of course – her car breaks down, and he helps out. Soon he’s spending time with her young son, and a relationship seems inevitable – even if he’s a man of few words.
This situation isn’t perfect though, and when Irene’s husband is released from jail and quickly finds himself of the receiving end of a baseball bat, Driver agrees to help him out on a debt-clearing robbery. But it all goes wrong, and with Irene and her son at risk, Driver is soon coming at the mob head on, splattering his white scorpion jacket with blood if he needs to.
But this is no gun-toting hero. Flexing his leather gloved fists and using whatever comes to hand, he mainly uses silence and eye contact to intimidate – something the director always allows to play out – and when he does open his mouth, he says exactly what he wants. It’s not about the money, it’s about the girl and her son.
Drive is one of those very rare things today: a film with quality and class, as well as having style by the truckload. Looking absolutely stunning as it dazzlingly makes use of every kind of light – headlights, flashlights, street lights, traffic lights, mood lights, pulses and flashes – this is a cross between Blade Runner and Heat, a 1980s neon-noir set to a bleak 1970s beat that makes Driver the Man With No Name for the new millennium.
In a role that would have gone to someone like Lee Marvin in the past, Gosling is amazing, making his character both a man and beast in a performance that makes his spasms of violence all the more disturbing, yet somehow utterly empathetic and understandable.
He is a simple man who saw the chance for a simple life, and while he and Mulligan spin their relationship through looks and shy smiles, the sense of malice and drama – whether it’s in the pulsating opening sequence or simply between two enemies sat at a table – is ever-present.
Deservedly winner of the Best Director gong at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Winding Refn makes Los Angeles look as beautiful as it’s ever been without using any tourist traps, and the adaptation from the James Sallis novel by Hossein Amini (who also adapted the dark Jude and The Wings of a Dove) is beautifully done, even if some of the music (largely an effective ambient/electro score) is a little on-the-nose. Expect to see this in the mix around Oscar® time.