Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn drive into Hollywood’s past
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn. Audiences should get used to seeing these names together because this could be the start of a beautiful collaborative relationship. It would be one based on a love, real love of movies — good, gritty, Hollywood movies — proving that there doesn’t have to be any shame in attending to the need for films that entertain.
Born in Copenhagen, Refn is a young director with an unflinching love of hard-driving action and intense psychological explorations. His feature debut, Pusher, in 1996, with its extreme violence front and center earned cult phenomenon status, spawned two follow-ups in 2004 and 2005 and a retrospective of the trilogy at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Seemingly everything was leading Refn to write and direct Bronson, another hyper-violent movie about Charles Bronson, one of Britain’s most infamous criminals with the sensational Tom Hardy as Bronson.
And now, he hooks up with Gosling, another similarly focused presence who kicked his own white knuckle career off with The Believer (as a self-hating Jew who becomes a neo-Nazi thug) and garnered an Academy Award nomination for his searing portrayal of a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson. Gosling has only recently shifted into more mainstream fare like this summer’s Crazy, Stupid, Love and the upcoming George Clooney political drama The Ides of March.
The Clooney reference is the instructive link for the Gosling-Refn dynamic because it calls to mind Clooney’s resurgence once he teamed up with Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker with the chops to cross back and forth across the independent-mainstream storytelling divide. The superb mix of comedy and violence in the caperish Out of Sight begat the lightweight gem Ocean’s Eleven (along with Twelve and Thirteen) which begat the Andrei Tarkovsky remake Solaris, which propelled these two into the higher echelon of America cinema.
So, the blazing pathway is there for Gosling and Refn, and it begins in this case with little more than a love of movies, a distinctly American brand that combines true grit and machismo. That is what these two celebrate with Drive. The simplistic title says all that needs to be said. Its protagonist, the rather bluntly named Driver (Gosling) is a stunt driver, a coolly efficient professional who moonlights as a getaway driver. He never carries a gun or leaves the car, but once the job is done and escape is all that matters, he is your man. He is Steve McQueen, the hero from the early to mid-70s, a man of few words or expressions brought into the 1980s of Michael Mann (Thief) and William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA), a loner-criminal type with a code and a life that will get complicated.
On one hand, there is a woman, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother with a baby daddy just out of jail in need of money, and a job that needs a driver. On the other side, there is Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a money man with dirty hands who has backed a racing team with Driver behind the wheel and partners caught up in all aspects of the criminal underworld. Driver sits squarely in the middle and once things go awry, there is brutality that cuts to the chase, gunning the engine while drifting expertly through the hairpin turns. It is a fun ride that certainly satisfies the need for speed, but as is the case with most of these types of movies, there is little in the way of thematic heft. We don’t know this world or its players (although Gosling and Brooks make you believe that such men certainly are more than figments of Hollywood fantasies) any better than we did before sitting down to this. The only thing that matters once it’s over is that they remain up there, on the screen, safely removed from us.
But Gosling and Refn, with upcoming collaborations already in discussion (officially set for Only God Forgives, while a Logan’s Run remake is in full-gossip mode) are ready to take us along for more spirited rides.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.