The 73rd Virgin says... I know I'm awfully late to this particular party. So stop me if you've seen this one. A top notch chase/revenge/bloodfest/cerebral artsy-fartsy thriller. Director Nicolas Winding Refn brought us the epically stupid Valhalla Rising a couple years ago. Had I known he was involved, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But wow, this is good.
The opening sequence is the most interesting I've seen in a long time as “Driver” helps two silently compliant robbers escape patrol cars and a helicopter. There is tension and very clear and understandable action and silent intuition and a nifty slow reveal twist all in the first ten minutes.
Ryan Gosling is “Driver” and channels Steve McQueen not only as a driver but as a charismatic black hole of self containment as in Bullitt or Le Mans.
I got worried because after the fine beginning it slows down to the weakest part with an overlong “getting to know you” sequence with the underwritten victimized single mother and girl next door, Irene. Carey Mulligan is fine but the character is awfully weak. McQueen was courting 1) Jacqueline Bisset 2) Elga Andersen. You know, women. Here, Driver is finding humanity through his attraction to a presumably 24-ish woman who appears to be about 17.
Thankfully, the movie wakes up again when her ex-con husband (named “Standard” for what it's worth) shows up bringing serious prison protection money problems, which sets up the remainder of the conflict. Driver makes a noble gesture to help Standard get out of trouble with the protection racket but finds that they have been double-crossed in a convoluted scheme to steal mob money. Whatever my problems with the love interest, this is a good scene.
All the supporting actors are great. Albert Brooks is cast against type, to put it mildly, as he kills two people within about 5 minutes of each other. With one he is coldly sadistic, with the other, wistful and comforting. Ron Perlman is as good at bad guys as he is as cartoon heroes. Here he is the embittered Jewish mobster who has re-styled himself as Nino, wears track suits, and uses a pizzeria as his front.
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The web is full of shorthand comparisons. The winner appears to be Bullitt crossed with Taxi Driver. I would add a dash of Mulholland Drive. In a Lynchian twist, Driver and Irene engage in a long slow-mo kiss as an unlikely ornate elevator light dims just for them. They come out of it as the light comes back up and just in time for Driver to stomp an attacker's face to crunchy concave mush while Irene finally realizes just what kind of creature she is dealing with. There is a wicked scene where Driver beats living hell out of a guy with a hammer while strippers silently get out of the way but otherwise show no emotion. By the end of the scene they are stone still like mannequins, or like the cardboard cutouts in Robert DeNiro's basement in “The King of Comedy”.
There is maybe another layer of pretense on top of it all, emphasized at the end, involving whether Driver is somehow supernatural or unkillable or exists only as stunt driver/getaway driver/avenging angel. I'm willing to believe anything where Refn is involved, but it's not too distracting. And there is much web discussion pondering the significance of Driver wearing a life mask prop from earlier in the movie as he reveals himself to be essentially Travis Bickle. I'm sure the scorpion on his coat means something.
But I was too swept up in the surface to concern myself with the depths. Great bloody fun.