Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 (9.0*)
Ryan Gosling plays a man we see in the beginning of the film driving a getaway car for men pulling a heist. The audience is immediately sucked into this film by having it start in the middle of some tense crime action. We later find out that Gosling also works in a garage, and performs driving stunts part-time for films.
Early in the film we learn a little of his personal side as he helps a young mother, Carey Mulligan, who also lives in his apartment building, when she needs a ride after he car breaks down. (Mulligan's character has little acting to do in this compared to her brilliant role in An Education.) We slowly see Gosling as more than a heartless criminal, and realize his character may be more dimensional than most in crime films.
Interspersed with scenes involving Gosling’s character, we also learn a little about some small time organized criminals, a business owner played by Ron Perlman, and Gosling’s garage manager, played by Bryan Cranston (without the same passion and strength as his role on Breaking Bad). Cranston gets a shady mogul, superbly played by Albert Brooks in a rare dramatic part, to invest in a race car to be driven by Gosling. Brooks has won eight awards for supporting actor for his performance, but was skipped over for an Oscar® nomination.
The audience is slowly drawn into Gosling’s world, as he is drawn into that of Mulligan’s, whose husband is said to simply be away – we later find he was in prison after he is released. On top of that, he became connected with some rather despicable men while incarcerated, and to whom he is now in debt.
For me, this film has enough similarities to George Stevens’ western classic Shane to be inspired by it. It has an heroic outsider, Gosling, coming to the aid of a family facing criminals they can’t control, largely due to his attraction to the wife and her young son. His past is murky, like Shane’s, he may be a criminal himself, but not by choice, and at all times he tries to do the right thing, like a samurai warrior. He’s a warrior, but with a code of ethics and personal honor.
The pace is well maintained by Danish director Nicolas Refn. It never seems forced, slow, or too action-packed, there’s just enough of each element to make it a well-crafted film. In fact, I’m a bit surprised (and peeved) that it wasn’t nominated for best picture since they came up with nine, it could have just as easily been ten. I’m willing to bet without having seen but a couple so far that it was better than at least five of those nine. This is going to be considered a quiet, understated classic over time.
It’s currently ranked #237 on the IMDB top 250, and has won 38 awards out of 94 nominations. Only a handful of other films has won this many awards for 2011: The Artist, The Tree of Life, The Descendents, The Help.