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ryan-gosling-drive-007The key piece of dialogue in “Drive,” a new thriller starring Ryan Gostling, happens early on before any of the hard core action begins. Bernie Rose, a shady character played by Albert Brooks extends his hand to Gostling. The younger actor stares at the gesture of friendship for a moment before declining to shake. “My hands are a little dirty,” he says. “So are mine,” replies Rose.

That quick conversation tells us that nobody in this movie is above boards and they don’t care who knows it.

Gostling is a man with no name, simply known as Driver, a movie stunt driver/grease monkey by day and get-a-way wheelman by night. Befriending his neighbors Irene (Carey Mulligan) and young son Benicio (Kaden Leos, who dials the cute kid factor way up) he makes a deal to drive get-a-way for some criminals to square a debt Irene’s husband ran up and safeguard the mother and child. When the deal goes bad he unwittingly becomes involved in a treacherous situation involving Irene’s recently paroled husband, one million dollars in cash and some angry mobsters.

“Drive” is an art house thriller. It’s stylized, with lighting effects, lots of slow motion and interesting camera angles that create a sense of unease that permeates every scene. For every instance of brutal violence director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Valhalla Rising,” “Bronson”) also escalates the movie’s sense of heightened reality. Very long pauses punctuate most every exchange of dialogue and how is it that no one seems to notice that the Driver is drenched in blood as he walks through a tony Chinese restaurant? “Drive” exists in its own world, and it is a fascinating place.

Here Gostling isn’t the easy charmer of “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” he plays Driver like a coiled spring. There hasn’t been a leading man this close-mouthed since Rudolph Valentino was the king of the silent screen. He’s a man of very few words, but his silence hints at an active inner life and his actions certainly speak to having a past. It’s a brave and strange performance, either emotionally shut down, or simply cool-as-a-cucumber, take your pick.

As for his co-stars, Mulligan isn’t given much to do except use her subtly expressive face to make physical whatever is going on in her head, but Albert Brooks, cast against type as a mobster and Bryan Cranston as an unlucky garage owner are stellar. Refn clearly loves his actors, stroking them in long close-ups, allowing the camera to luxuriate on their faces. It’s the exact opposite of what we usually find in thrillers, but here it adds atmosphere and star power.

“Drive” is long-on silence and big on anti-heroes, and is one of the most intriguing movies of the year so far.

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