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ryan gosling in the driver's seat
iconoclastic star shines in two different hollywood dramas
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

I love L.A. movies. Not movies shot in L.A. or abstractly set there, but films that live and breathe their L.A.-ness, because it’s a difficult thing to do. In a city so often associated with illusion – a city that can give you everything from snow-capped mountains to deserts, where sunshine and rain can be blocks apart – capturing its true essence can be, at times, like capturing water in your hands.

Drive, the first Hollywood film made by the Denmark-born, New York-raised Nicholas Winding Refn (you need to see his film Bronson TODAY) is so Los Angeles. Not the plot, necessarily, but its essence, its feel, its heart. The film stars Ryan Gosling, a gifted actor whom I have been a big fan of since his breakthrough, Oscar-nominated work in Half Nelson (2006). His unnamed character, a stunt car driver of mysterious origins, hardly speaks for the first twenty minutes of the film and it is a testament that we know so much about his character by then, even though we haven’t been told much. Gosling does more with his eyes or a smirk than just about any actor of his generation.

The similarities between this film and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver are legion: depiction of the city as a lonely entity, glorious slow motion shots to spare, an emotionally dissatisfied lead who drives a car for a living, said emotionally dissatisfied lead going on a vigilante warpath to protect a helpless young girl. Albert Brooks is even in both films. However, where Brooks is rigid and impotent in the 1976 classic, he is a powerful and menacing force in Drive. Who knew Albert Brooks could be so frightening?

The rest of the cast is dynamic as well, especially Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman. Still, as adorable and vulnerable as she is, I don’t buy Carey Mulligan as a waitress mom married to an incarcerated Latino man, whose release from prison catapults the narrative into, well, 3rd gear. That complaint is relative, since her chemistry with Gosling is off the charts. And that’s really all that matters. There is a scene after their first date in which Refn allows the camera to linger as they look at one another, both too infatuated to speak. American-born directors are too ADHD to let shots like this happen, but Refn (and editor Matthew Newman) modulate pace with no fear.

It is such a loose collection of winning elements: awesome car chases, a romantic subplot, Gosling as some amazing hybrid of Montgomery Clift and Steve McQueen, film noirish ambiguity (every single person in this movie – except Mulligan’s 6-year-old son – does something suspect throughout the course of the film). Though the film is modern day, an 80s ethos hangs over the film, even down to the Purple Rain font on the credits. Cliff Martinez’s synth-heavy score both frames and punctuates the lives of these sad, God-less characters. Drive is not for everyone. It is like a very violent John Hughes film, for those who thought Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club would’ve been better if someone’s skull got crushed in an elevator. Let me illustrate that point again: Drive is a very very very violent film. Even if you know that coming in, when the violence arrives, it is still shocking. And once it begins, like when violence happens in real life, you never know when it will end.

So it was interesting then, to find myself in another theater, several hours later, watching Gosling star in another film, different on the surface, yet also propelled by his character’s avenging of a girl who can’t protect herself. The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney, takes a private look at the personal corruption of idealistic staffer Stephen Meyers (Gosling), during his stint on the presidential campaign of iconoclastic governor Mike Morris (Clooney). The film’s twists and turns are heartbreaking, and as the film is more or less from Meyers’ point of view, it is fascinating to watch him act as the film’s moral compass, even as his own morality shifts.

The Ides of March is not quite an All the President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor-level political anarchy masterpiece. But it doesn’t miss by much. The all-star cast sparkles: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti simultaneously do the grumpy but brilliant guy thing they do so well, Marisa Tomei, as a pesky reporter, finally gets to be completely unhot in a movie, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle and Evan Rachel Wood (never prettier or more vulnerable) all turn in admirable performances. It is no wonder why actors excel in Clooney directed films. Besides the strong scripts and the confidence that experienced actor-directors generally inspire in their fellow actors, Clooney films know the value of a close up. The Ides of March is like most of Clooney’s other films as director or producer: sharp, well-acted and smart, but bleak.

But as in Drive, even in a stellar ensemble, Gosling shines. Meyers is hardly an innocent waif at the film’s beginning, but he is very unaware how dirty the waters he regularly breaststrokes in truly are. As he stumbles into discovering an unspeakable act committed and covered up by the charismatic governor, then is screwed by both his supervisor and his supervisor’s nemesis, we feel his mounting stress, though he resorts to a minimum of theatrics. His evolution is both swift and gradual; a lesser actor wouldn’t have done nearly as much with it. Like Johnny Depp, Gosling has found a way to become a star on his own terms, working with rebellious directors in challenging films. Both of these films leave you rooting for Gosling, even as his characters complete actions that are reprehensible by almost anyone’s moral code. He seems a throwback to late 60s/early 70s stars like DeNiro, Michael Caine or Jack Nicholson – handsome but inherently off-center, pulling audiences further away from their sense of right and wrong with each groundbreaking film and each amazing performance.

Who would’ve thought that a Canadian, ex-Mickey Mouse Club kid would come so far so fast? This is one thing that can be beautiful about art. We can make it if we try.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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mike julianelle
10.14.11 @ 3:52p

I first encountered Gosling in the Showtime movie, The Believer. It's got a provocative plot that's marred by a somewhat TV-movie aesthetic/budget, but Gosling is phenomenal as the severely conflicted, self-hating main character. I highly recommend it, purely for his performance. Been tracking him ever since. Was fun seeing him lighten up in Crazy Stupid Love. About the only
film he's cracked a smile in besides Remember the Titans!

I'm seeing Drive soon. Been delayed. Damn kids!


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