The Driver, for he has no name, is the archetypal principled-yet-amoral man drawn deeper than he’d like into a criminal underworld by his love for a woman who is, inevitably, mixed up with some seriously nasty people. Isn’t this always the way? Think Barbra Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Jane Greer in Out of the Past. However, unlike the typical femme fatale, Irene (Carey Mulligan) remains the most innocent, indeed the most clueless, character as all the mayhem unfolds around her. She’s helpless and blameless, and the Driver has come to rescue her, like some misguided white knight. Yet he himself is so dangerous he might just put his boot through some hood’s face if he even senses she’s in danger.
He doesn’t say much, and when he does speak it might be to warn you he’d like to kick your teeth down your throat. He has the deadly inertia of a wolf, remaining placid when given a passive-aggressive going-over by Irene’s jailbird husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac). When he gets involved in a shady deal on Standard’s behalf, it’s clear that he’s doing so because he knows himself to be the more capable criminal.
Ryan Gosling excels in a role could just as easily have gone to an older man – imagine Mickey Rourke in that blood-spattered bomber jacket – yet his baby-face adds sweetness and ambiguity to his seemingly paternalistic relationship with his neighbour. In the one key scene where he tries to make his feelings plain, he admits that he wants above all to ‘look out for her’. Again, in true Noir-style, such hopes prove futile. Seconds later, any chance for this new life is lost. But the way Gosling delivers that plea, staring at the floor, brilliantly conveys his sense of resignation; it's so much more subtle and powerful than any of the acting-class histrionics that characterised his turn as the deadbeat husband in Blue Valentine. The Driver is trapped, he'll never change, and he knows it; why else would he choose to decorate himself with that massive print of a scorpion?
Motivating the action are Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as ruthless, low-level mobsters. Brooks in particular is superb playing against type, and clearly relishing the opportunity to show off his dark side. Then there is Bryan Cranston: funny and sweet, yet also kind of sad, like he knows from the off that nothing is going to end well.
Plus it all looks and sounds amazing, suffused in neon, with a pulsating soundtrack of obscure retro-electric pop-music complete with disarmingly on-the-button lyrics (It comes as a surprise to learn that none of those songs were written specifically for the film). Everything fits together beautifully. The violent events of the second half snap together with a brutal tension and inevitably.
And as with all the great noirs, when the damaged hero disappears into the night he does so wounded, and alone.