Monday, February 6, 2012
If style were the sole determinant of quality then director Nicolas Winding Refn’s art house crime movie would clean up on prizes. Under the loving gaze of Newton Thomas Sigel’s camera Los Angeles at night has rarely looked more romantic. Such are the cinematic environs in which we meet our super cool hero, played by Ryan Gosling, elegantly eluding a police dragnet in the car he drives for the chauffeured thieves in back. Driver (as he is called in the credits, since we never learn his name) works as a mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who also farms him out as a part-time driver of stunt cars for the movies and the occasional getaway car for criminals. A recluse by necessity, Driver avoids meaningful human contact whenever possible. But he breaks this rule by assisting neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) after her car breaks down in a parking lot. Despite his initial reticence Driver soon befriends her and her young son just in time for husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) to return home from prison. The ex-con owes a local thug prison protection money and is being violently coerced into robbing a pawnshop to make good the debt. Driver offers his services to help clean the slate, but the job goes awry, leaving him in the lethal sights of mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his hotheaded partner Nino (Ron Perlman). Taking a cue from its protagonist, Hossein Amini’s spare screenplay (from the James Sallis book) remains cold and detached, which makes the film’s violence even more shocking and unsettling. Because we are kept at such a remove from even the main character; however, the grisly acts have little emotional impact, and we are left to wonder how to feel about the carnage we’ve just witnessed. Gosling gets surprising mileage out of an impassive face, but the rest of the exceptional cast seem hamstrung by a director with something to prove. Even Brooks’ villainous turn lacks his trademark humor. Either Winding Refn is too in love with his craft (which is considerable) to be bothered with character development let alone nuance, or else he has spent too many hours reading the nihilistic philosophies of Nietzsche.