I think there's a certain desire to make the perfect action film, or to reinvent the action film for modern times and modern audiences. Since we have decided to let teenagers determine the course of American culture, and only value movies that can make a shit-ton of money, obviously it all kind of comes down to comedies, horror, romantic comedies and action. So what are you to do if you are a smart director? You can either continue making small movies that don't make any money, and thus fail to accrue power (power, for instance, to make better, more personal films), or you can give in and try to make money. One way to handle this is to try to make slightly arted-up versions of genre films, that still supply the thrills audiences want, and hopefully make money, but are still somewhat respectable films. I sound more cynical than I am--this is a good film--and it takes a certain amount of intelligence to realize that you HAVE to do something smart that will stand out. At the same time, these are the circumstances within which it was created.
This is by Nicolas Winding Refn who directed Bronson, that I liked very much. That movie had a lot of good, smart tension (although to many other viewers, NOTHING is happening), and it seemed that Refn is interested in creating powerful, exciting images, and specifically images of masculinity and male power. This film begins with Ryan Gosling as "The Driver" (he is never named) waiting to provide getaway car service for two nameless thugs who pull a robbery. There's a good, low-level off-and-on chase through the streets of Los Angeles, in which we see that he is a shrewd and talented driver. Then we have the credits, which are hot pink stylized cursive, obviously a reference to 80s L.A. thrillers like To Live and Die in L.A. and American Gigolo. The music is electronic disco in the manner of the Giorgio Moroder or Tangerine Dream scores of those 80s films. The songs with lyrics comment on the Driver's character, the first one here saying "There's something inside you, it's hard to explain. They're talking about you..."
The first half is fairly low-key as it sets up the relationships that will explode (artfully, of course) in the second half. Gosling meets Irene, who lives down the hall, who has a young son named Benicio. She is played by Carey Mulligan and, gosh, WHY is she so compelling to look at? Is it those big watery eyes? Gosling as well is not too hard on the eyes, and already we can notice that Refn knows how to compose a shot so that, even when it's showing nothing more compelling than someone standing in a kitchen, is exciting and satisfying to look at. And one can't get too much further into the movie without noticing the bright, super-saturated colors throughout. The whole thing looks amazing without being ostentatious about it.
We also meet Bryan Cranston as Shannon, low-rent, low-IQ hustler with a heart of gold and manager of Gosling. He makes a deal with Albert Brooks as big-time badass gangster Mr. Rose. Rose hangs out in the company of huge goomba Nino, played by Ron Perlman. In here we learn that Gosling drives stunts for the movies in his respectable job, which introduces this wonderfully creepy latex mask that will come into play later. Gosling's relationship with Irene continues to gradually grow, as well as his surrogate fathership of Benicio, and as they're having an idyllic day out by the industrial drainage creek, we hear a song saying "You're a real human being, and a real hero." Oh by the way, it's hard not to notice that Gosling constantly wears a white nylon jacket with an embroidered scorpion on the back. Could that be significant? You tell me.
Turns out Benicio's father is in prison, and is released. He is immediately beaten up by thugs who he owes money to for protection while in the joint. He gets into a scheme to rob a pawn shop, we introduce Christina Hendricks as Blanche, who is coming along, and Gosling gets involved because he has a soft spot for Benicio. But there's another, unexpected car at the robbery, things go south fast, and rather than the small amount of money they expected, they end up holding a million dollars in cash. Trouble is sure to follow, and follow it does.
SPOILERS > > >
So here's where the action and violence starts a'poppin', and we find out that Gosling is actually a badass kill-'em-all motherfucker. The husband from prison doesn't make it. Blanche's head explodes in a slo-mo explosion of blood. Gosling escapes with the money, which he just wants to get rid of. We soon find that the whole scheme leads up to Nino, who involves Mr. Rose, and that the money is stolen from the East Coast mafia. I've gotta tell you, this movie is pretty violent and bloody. It didn't bother me and I found it all to be fairly carefully controlled (like everything else), but it's the kind of thing that can get the critic from New York magazine to dismiss the entire movie because it is like soooooooo gross and like, TOTALLY icky. I also heard a funny quip from some other critic who said: "You don't wonder, 'Is he dead?'"
In here is a notable scene in which Gosling and Irene are in the elevator, when Gosling realizes that the other guy there is a thug sent to kill them. He pushes Irene back, then kisses her--as certain lights dim to give their moment an angelic glow--then he attacks the thug, kicking in his head until the thug's brains fall out. Irene is stunned and, well, the only thing we can say with confidence is that she's IMPRESSED, although one also suspects she's perhaps also a trifle bit moist. Remember how I said this movie carries over a bit of the interest in images of male power and masculinity from Bronson? The biggest example is here, as we have a shot of Gosling's back, featuring the scorpion on his jacket, as he breathes in and out in excitement.
Blah, blah, it all goes on, Nino is taken care of, and finally it comes down to Mr. Rose. Now in here we're going to discuss the very ending, so if you don't want to know, you should skip out of the spoilers. Gosling meets Rose at a restaurant. Rose tells him that if he hands over the money, Irene will be safe, but Gosling will have to leave town and will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. They go out to the car, Gosling hands over the money, and Rose stabs him! My word, WHO could have seen that coming? Then Gosling stabs Rose. He leaves Rose, and the money, laying there in the parking lot. Then Gosling, bleeding from the stomach, drives off, because that's what he does: he drives. As he does, we again hear the song telling us "You're a real human being, and a real hero."
This ending rang way false for me. We've shown that Gosling is a shrewd, unstoppable badass killing machine up until now, and then suddenly he gets killed by a knife--that a CHILD could see coming? Why doesn't he just kill Rose before all of this happened? The movie makes quite clear he can kill pretty much whoever he wants. So to have it end like this implies that they (whether it was the filmmakers or the writer of the original novel) bent their characters this way because they wanted this ending, not that this was the inevitable outcome of this situation. And for me, at least, that throws a bit of a pall over the entire movie.
< < < SPOILERS END
Aside from that, my only reservation about it is that it's the tiniest bit TOO perfect, with everything in its place, everything lined up right in a row, which makes for a tight and excellent film, but one that maybe lacks a little bit in inspiration. There are not a lot of surprises here, although one may not be able to see specifics coming, you know something LIKE that is coming, and that the film beautifully goes through those motions, they're still somewhat predetermined motions. And I'm getting a tiny bit tired of Gosling as the sensitive-but-inarticulate guy. But ultimately we're talking about whether this is an A or an A-. Don't get me wrong, this is a good film, and you should see it. It's just one of those that is so good and well-made that one wishes it was that smidge better.
Yes, especially if you like arty, well-executed and thoughtful action films. PS: Many people HATE this film, and many others see it as boring, static, and lifeless. Fair warning.