Ryan Gosling gets behind the wheel as our unlikely hero – a reserved stunt driver-cum-getaway artist (let's call him the strong, silent type), who gets mixed up protecting his lady friend neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son from the dirty doings of her jailbird husband.
We spend most of the first half of the film establishing the romantic (?) bond between Mulligan and Gosling (Side note: Is it just me? Didn't we see this combo in Gosling's last movie?), and the latter shows off his wry smiling capabilities.
For all the time spent upon it, the ring of truth doesn't sound loudly on the demure chemistry displayed by the couple. And this partially due to, rather than in spite of, the lush 80s electronica-inspired soundtrack which, while beautiful and sure to send hipsters to the record store in droves, at times starts to suffocate the scenes it is meant to compliment.
However it's here, at the halfway point and the conclusion of the pair's comparatively frivolous courtship, that the 18A rating rears its headless shoulders. Gosling transforms from mild-mannered (though cooly criminal) family-type to a terrifyingly mechanical one-man-army.
After a stream of brutality that walks the line between Tarantino's outlandish and detached violence in Kill Bill and the immediate wanton horror of a war epic like Platoon, both evaded and delivered by Goslin, he is finally matched against Ron Pearlman, playing a blowhard crime boss pizzeria owner, and Albert Brooks, Pearlman's more formidable and shrewd partner – roles that they each happen to slide into like hands in gloves.
Most notable, however, is the confident direction from Nicolas Winding Refn. Calling his work stylish, or even stylized, can only hint at the delicate energy that infuses the film, and which has picked him up a best director accolade at Cannes.
This juxtaposition speaks to more than at first glance, as Refn displays the vitality and spontaneity of a debut feature, letting his film live in a series of different moods and fashions over the course of its running time, while still allowing each to add to, rather than to muddle, the central story, and letting strong performances anchor the audience to the proceedings.
Though not for the faint of heart, this is a film that pays dividends to the dedicated and observant moviegoer. One caveat – I recommend driving yourself to the theatre.