A nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling), known as ‘the Kid’ to his elders, works in Los Angeles as a mechanic, a movie stunt performer and an ultra-efficient getaway man hired by less cool heisters. He lives alone, says little and performs under pressure, which inspires his manager (Bryan Cranston) to get financial backing from genial if shady Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) to launch him as a stock-car racer … but gets interested in his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, which draws him into tsuris when Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) gets out of jail owing a debt to a mob.
Scripted by Hossein Amini from a novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, this harks back in its tone/plot/look to early Walter Hill (The Driver) and Michael Mann (Thief) – but they both hark back to Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai) or Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter). Gosling is impressive as the quiet pro with deep resources – he could almost be the modern-day avatar of the immortal warrior Mads Mikkelsen played in Refn’s Valhalla Rising – and shows the kind of cool and reserve which used to be the province of major movie stars. It’s not a cold film, thanks to the nuanced work of Mulligan – whose character doesn’t quite react the way we expect – and some outstanding character work from Cranston, Brooks (the sort of against-type bravura that gets Best Supporting Actor noms – he murders a victim tenderly, slicing his artery with a straight razor and reassuring him ‘there, it’s over’) and Ron Perlman (as Nino, the brutal thug behind the trouble, racked with his own resentments and inadequacies – a Jew running a pizza parlour and trying to keep in with Italian mobsters). The opening getaway is masterful but unshowy, the antithesis of the Fast and the Furious style – the point is escape and evasion, not destruction (we see that in a staged car stunt done for what looks like a rotten movie starring a bald action guy – and demonstrates the hero’s capabilities, which are stretched when he volunteers to accompany the dim husband and a jittery dame (Christina Hendricks) on a pawnshop robbery which will supposedly clear his debt but which is naturally a set-up for a double cross.
In and out of the car, the Driver rules … applying fast, shattering violence when forced to, and eerily putting on the convincing-in-long-shot mask provided so he can double the star as he approaches the villains’ lair and closes on the quivering Nino, forcing him into the sea. It’s a great Los Angeles film, playing on the city’s vast sprawl and crowded freeways. Gosling and Refn are both major talents who have played it smart so far, working in a budget level where their ambitions aren’t hindered by the compromised that might come if they shift up a level – it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here.