A taciturn, existential leading man is something to be – but it is something you have to be born to, rather than aspire to. With McQueen, Eastwood or Cooper, you knew that the mask face was set in stone and you had a clear understanding of what lay beneath.
Here, the very talented Ryan Gosling has decided to have a bash at doing a stony face, acting with just a slight flicker around the mouth or a flinch of the jawbone.
He's not a natural – but the effort makes him oddly compelling because you never know what lies behind his fixed features. Is he the perfect tough guy always a few steps ahead of the game or an empty-headed droopy draws, who keeps his peace because he's a bit slow on the uptake?
The film belongs to the lone professional genre, where cold, calculated men with no attachments go about their jobs in cold, calculated unattached cities.
Gosling's nameless protagonist is the Driver – movie stunts and getaways a speciality. He is the perfect professional – talented, disciplined and meticulously prepared. But the audience knows this can't last and it will falter when he relaxes or breaks his strict professional code.
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And within minutes of the start, he's making eyes – or at least directed squints – at his perky, single mother neighbour Irene (played by Carey Mulligan).
The film is shaped as a pristine piece of late 1970s/early 1980s nostalgia. The obvious rip here is Walter Hill's The Driver, another arid vision of big city crime about a driver without a name.
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But the film it feels closest to Thief – Michael Mann's first feature film. The 80s synth pop soundtrack, the backstreet locations, the pristine rundown look and even the colour and typeface of the credits seem to pay homage.
But the film doesn't stick with this buttoned-down minimalism and, halfway through, it bursts free of its period trappings in a rush of head stamping, knife-thrusting savagery.
Reviewers and preview audiences have been going mad for Drive. But although there is much to enjoy – notably outstanding performances from Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks – ultimately it struck me as quite a thin creation, a cardboard cut-out of a great crime drama.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan
Length: 100 mins