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Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Opens Sept. 16

If they allowed 13-year-old boys into R-rated movies (officially), Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive would be a middle-school hero by the end of the first reel. As director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film unspools, Gosling’s unnamed Hollywood stuntman/after-hours wheelman picks up a hot car and a couple of heist men, waits while they pull a job, and then coolly helps them elude police in one of the most deft and pulse-pounding action sequences you’ll see onscreen all year. But when the unnamed driver throws his bag on the bed in a new apartment that night, he doesn’t even turn on the light—it’s just another nondescript flop—telegraphing to grownups the downsides of being so cool, so untouchable.

And that’s Drive all over. On the surface, it rolls like an homage to contemporary urban noir, a cross between early Michael Mann and Grand Theft Auto. Just under that surface, it’s a story of desperation and thwarted desires and tough decisions with a surprising emotional heft to it.

A little humanity peeks through the driver’s impassive shell after he befriends cute, sweet neighbor Irene (An Education’s Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Unfortunately, Irene is still married to petty-criminal shithead Standard (Oscar Isaac), fresh out of prison. Wanting to help Irene, the driver tries to help Standard, and thus runs afoul of Bernie (a phenomenal Albert Brooks), a former movie producer turned minor crime boss. Bernie had been working with the driver’s mechanic mentor (Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston) to launch the driver on a legit racing career. But everything eventually boils down to a triangle, with the driver doing what he must to protect Irene and Bernie doing what he must to protect his own skin, and it’s an emotional triangle as much as the plot variety.

The fact that Refn (cult faves Pusher, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising) is able to build all this on a nearly nonverbal man without a past speaks to his talent, and to Gosling’s. While the actor barely does anything that you’ll notice, by the time he’s carrying a sleeping Benicio after a big day out, you’re ready to buy a possible transformation. Yet Refn reveals in a head-spinning scene set in an elevator that the driver may be gallant but he’s no white knight, and as he hurtles toward a showdown with Bernie, you kind of hate to see either of them lose. There are some maladroit bits here too (Ron Perlman chews grimy scenery as a crass heavy, and the script hands Cranston lines like “This kid is special”), but Refn’s crafted an instant classic worthy of both the art house and Saturdays on TNT.

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