“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive.”
In LA there is a driver for hire. By day he’s a stunt driver for movies and works in a garage, by night he drives getaway cars during robberies. His world is a simple one with simple rules. Plagued by insomnia, he is a silent and contemplative criminal. That is, until he meets Irene, his next door neighbour with a quiet voice and kind eyes. He develops a relationship with her and her young son, wherein we see him smile and speak. When her husband Standard returns from prison, it throws their idyllic bond off kilter. The driver offers to help Standard pay off his prison debts in order to stay close to Irene. The result is pain and brutality that threatens to destroy everyone. To defend the people he’s come to care about, the driver must be more than a passive observer and risk falling prey to the violence he has avoided until now.
Ryan Gosling stars as the driver and to me was an interesting choice for the role of quiet cabbie turned killer. There’s only one other film of his that I’ve seen that echoes the darkness found in this character. It was a movie called “Murder by Numbers” where he plays a murderer who thinks he’s too smart to be caught, a modern take on the movie “Rope”. The role feels childish though when stacked up against his new movie. Here he is a people watcher, a blank face that betrays no emotion, a guarded personality. He has very slow and measured reactions to situations and characters, almost as if he’s gauging how much to reveal and how much to hide about himself. We don’t even know his name, where he’s from or what his background is. He is a ghost and he almost goes out of his way not to speak. Watch how he responds when talking to Shannon, his boss. You get the sense that maybe he’s running from something or perhaps someone. And then there's his toothpick. It's very Clint Eastwood, Man with No Name but in this day and age, also feels like a politically correct stand-in for a cigarette. There's a great scene between the driver and Irene's kid with the toothpick and one of the few genuine laughs the movie got out of me.
One of the frustrating things about the film was how half the time I couldn’t read Gosling. Even though I think it's part of his character, in a movie with so little dialogue I'd like to think that body language and facial expressions help the viewer read a character and provide them with information about movitivation.
And then there's Bernie, a mobster who does what's necessary but regrets the violence and the bad things he has to do. He and Gosling plays two polar opposite, the knight and the villain. They play off perfectly against one another as both seem to know what has to happen next. Incidentally, Bernie is played by Albert Brooks, the same man who voiced Marlin the clown fish in "Finding Nemo". This is akin to Henry Fonda playing Frank in "Once Upon a Time in the West", a shocking and and fruitful casting decision.
This is what I would call a modern retro movie. From the cars to the costumes, to the music. Everything about this movie screams 80s. But it's a slick 80s, not the fuzzy sort of big-haired sloppy decade we're familiar with. The cinematography is beautiful. There are these amazing bird’s eye views of the city as well as locations that seem to be chosen very specifically as set pieces.
This is a movie with an enormous emphasis on stillness and then sudden spurts of violence. It's very slow paced in places with no quick-cut editing which I was glad and surprised to find in an action movie. The pacing mirrors the 80s theme but made people in the theatre uncomfortable. Near the end, when the camera holds on Gosling's character and hold and holds, people started to giggle and I've always felt that laughter fills the spaces we don't want filled with silence.
But the astonishing thing about this movie is how it encompasses both an extreme tenderness in dealing with the driver’s interactions with Irene and her son and a brutality that borders on disturbing. Nowhere is this more evident than the elevator scene. We see this moment of softness between the driver and Irene, the light level lowers as if to show they're the only two people in the world. And then we see the violence in a curb stomping that elicited gasps from the audience.
This was an excellent movie, one of the best I've seen all year. Everything came together here, the cast, the plot, the music, the cinematography, the editing, the set, the costumes, the cars. The only thing I didn't like was the font in the opening credits. It was pink and fluffy and while it felt like the right font for the 80s, it still felt out of place. To me the font screamed Cyndi Lauper, "Some Kind of Wonderful" rather than violent action movie with cars.
While not everyone may be able to take the flashes of violence in this movie I would highly recommend it. It's a solid movie with a good story. A great addition to the canon of action movies.