Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
There's a moment midway through the last act of director Nicolas Winding Refn's brutal noir-thriller that more or less typifies the director's approach to his material. The nameless driver (Ryan Gosling) is in an elevator with the newly found love of his life, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother whose husband has inadvertently put the life of her and her young son in great danger. Also on the elevator is a murderous thug dispatched by a crooked Hollywood gangster named Nino (Ron Perlman) to take out the driver and end their arrangement together. Recognizing the situation, the driver calmly moves Irene to the furthest corner of the elevator, turns his back to the thug who still hasn't made a move, and kisses her tenderly with the full focus of his being. That accomplished, he proceeds to knock the thug down and stomp repeatedly on his head until it finally crushes like a softened mango under his boot. At this moment, the elevator stops, the doors open and Irene is left to back out of the blood soaked elevator with a look of sheer, confused terror on her face.
Many in the audience will doubtless feel the same way. Refn's meticulously represented savagery is not for the faint of heart, but more than the result of his gore splattering is the calm, almost loving way in which he sets up his audience for the event. He lulls you in, whispering sweet murmurs, then snaps the trap shut and lets fly the crimson splatters and crushed bone. As a result, Refn, who, in the last three years, also directed the equally mesmerizing and brutal Valhalla Rising and Bronson, comes across as even amounts passionate artist and batshit loon. Perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive.
The film comes across as several different types at once: There are certainly noir undertones, with a nameless, vengeful protagonist lead astray by a woman in peril, but there are also moments in the film, especially during the opening action/chase sequence, that read more closely to a live-action "Grand Theft Auto" than anything resembling Jim Thompson. There's also the mixed-match love story between a hardened badass and a sweet, genial woman and her son, and a bit with a hard-luck mechanic (played by Bryan Cranston) who wants to finally score a big shot with the driver as his accomplice, only to see his plans fall pray to one last improbable bit of horrific fortune. Part stately Schlesinger, part bloody Peckinpah, Refn is on pace to become one of the next directors of real significance as long as, like his protagonist here, he continues to keep his foot down on the gas pedal.