This film is so elegantly, so eloquently cool it’s like glacial water poured over triple-filtered vodka. And the coolest thing in it is Ryan Gosling playing a man with no name and a mysterious past.
He is the ‘driver’, a stuntman/mechanic/getaway driver of little words but sometimes explosive action. He lives alone and works alone, his closest acquaintance being Shannon (Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle’s Bryan Cranston), the owner of the garage where he works who wants to establish a car race team with his decidedly dodgy business partner Bernie (Albert Brooks). Driver also does a rather nifty sideline in getaway driving for crooks who aren’t half as cool as he is.
His life looks pretty set until he forms an attachment with his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son and things start to go wrong when her husband gets out of jail and needs money urgently to pay off outstanding gangland debts. Just as Driver wants to do something positive and good in his life for Irene, the wheels come off his well-run existence and he finds himself involved in a job that he knows is going to land him in trouble.
It’s at this juncture that the film launches itself into full-blown violent action with adrenaline-fuelled car chases and fight scenes that leave the audience feeling like emotional punchbags. Gosling effortlessly switches from caring nice guy to coldly calculating killer without batting an eyelid or breaking into a sweat. He says more with just the slight incline of an eyebrow than a Shakespearean actor can say with a whole monologue. But he’s not the only performer upping his game here; Mulligan is also extremely good as the sweet but fragile Irene, while Cranston and Brooks are excellent in roles they really inhabit.
At just 100 minutes director Nicolas Winding Refn keeps the storyline pumping along and one of the film’s great strengths is that you really can’t second-guess which way it will go. Add in a cool car, cool driving gloves, cool jacket and a cooler than cool electronic soundtrack and you get a film that blows most of 2011’s other releases straight off the motorway.