A driver for hire (Ryan Gosling) gets a contract put on his head after a botched heist in <em>Drive</em>.

In the dazzling and under-the-skin-creeping modern film noir number Drive, the ever-captivating Ryan Gosling plays a dualistic character, a quiet and sometimes half-naïve nice guy with the capacity to transform into a serious badass when required. That same careful balancing act is in check in this stunning blast of a film, generally, in which light chases dark at high speeds on a lost highway.

From the coolly riveting opening sequence of Drive, as our driver hero (only a semi-anti-hero) eludes an L.A. cop dragnet with virtuosic skill, we know to buckle up, mentally, and brace for high velocity and some criminally bad manners. Gosling’s enigmatic man-of-few-words character, the proverbial stranger without an apparent past in town, is all about cars: driving them as a stunt driver in movies, working as a mechanic, and being groomed as a stock-car racer.

Big trouble starts when he falls in love with his sweet neighbor (Carey Mulligan), who’s got a young son and a bad-news husband just coming out of prison. What transpires is a thickening, and sometimes sickening, journey into the dark side, like Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, except with anchoring characters blessed with goodness at heart. A tender, empathetic love angle warms up the film, amid a seriously darkening plot.

From a filmic standpoint, the filmmakers bring an uncommon artfulness to the dingy cityscape, turning this latter-day B-movie into a masterful construction of sight (Newton Thomas Sigel’s ever-fascinating and keenly L.A.-centric cinematography), sound (Cliff Martinez’s reverb-doused electro-atmospheric score), and pacing.

Most importantly in this film’s generous list of virtues, Gosling brings an expressive power in reserve, which resembles Paul Walker’s taciturn super car guy in the Fast and Furious franchise. But unlike the charming “bad actor” charisma of Walker, Gosling brings to the job his extra measure of magnetism and scary control. There is something about Gosling, the Canadian who is shaping up as one of Hollywood’s secret weapons.

Yes, Drive is at times chilling and grisly to suit the nature of the material, but it transcends the nastiness of the genre with its generous deposits of heart and art. Here’s one for the 2011 Top Ten list, arty-grit division.


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