Crashing in a wave of tumultuous applause from Cannes, Mr. Gosling is positively electrifying in Drive, the kind of steamy, understated, pulp-fiction film noir they used to turn out in Humphrey Bogart’s day. It’s about a lonely Hollywood stunt man with nerves of steel who smashes cars in action thrillers during the day and plows through the dark purple streets of L.A. driving getaway cars by night, listening to ball games and police reports. The first 20 minutes are nonstop, speed-and-guts action guaranteed to keep even the most jaded action-genre enthusiast wide awake, and the tempo never wanes. Unexpectedly, the unnamed man mysteriously referred to only as Driver develops confused feelings of compassion for a friendly neighbor in his apartment building (another superb character essay by Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison. When he has served his time returned to his wife and young son, and gets beaten half to death by the thugs he owes protection money, Driver gets involved against his better judgment and drives for the ex-con while he robs a pawn shop of enough money to pay off his debt. The scheme backfires, the ex-con gets gunned down, and Mr. Gosling ends up with the money and a cold-blooded gun moll with a heart of pure poison (Christina Hendricks, the redhead office manager from Mad Men). Pursued by an underworld gang led by a former Hollywood producer-turned mobster (Albert Brooks in a curdling surprise turn as a razor-wielding maniac) and trapped on a one-way street to the bottom of the river with no detour, Driver sweats bullets to survive long enough to turn the stolen money over to the dead man’s widow before the mob gets there first. They’re the apex of evil, but he’s a better driver. The girl has softened his heart but hardened his resolve. The tension is palpable, the suspense as unbearable as the final steps to the hangman’s noose.
Nothing turns out as planned. The crack dialogue is minimal but crisp and dead-on. The meter set by off beat Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn is lean and unsparing. And the pace is enhanced by the most engaging antihero behind the wheel since Steve McQueen. This is the kind of role nobody writes anymore, and even if they did, there are no actors who can play it. Ryan Gosling has an enigmatic fury and exclusive eyes the color of a hard blue sky, never giving the camera too much of himself, always leaving the audience room for speculation and anxiety. He has always been exhilarating to watch, but Drive is the movie that will skyrocket him to major stardom.
After a movie as fresh, original and daring as Drive, you learn to ignore the insanity, the P.R. poop and the screaming throngs who bring their own folding chairs and stand on top of garbage cans to get a glimpse of a nonentity like Seth Rogen, and finally concentrate on what a film festival is really about—the films. TIFF 2011 churns out the usual doom and gloom about death, torture and the human race behaving badly, but in addition to incest, rape and dysfunctional family epics, an unusual number of films reflect a creeping paranoia infusing society with fear. Land of Oblivion, from Poland and the Ukraine, channels the radioactive destruction of a pastoral village in the aftermath of black rain radiation from a Chernobyl-like power-plant disaster. Lars von Trier’s pretentious bore Melancholia is a 135-minute chronicle of the end of the world witnessed by the guests at a garden party as a wayward planet plunges toward Earth. It is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Home invasions are big this year. In Trespass, masked intruders arrive at an isolated Louisiana plantation to beat, slash and otherwise drive Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage to the edge of murder and madness. From Canada, a more unusual thriller gaining attention is the harrowing 388 Arletta Avenue, about an affluent Toronto couple (Nick Stahl and Mia Kirshner) who are being watched and filmed 24 hours a day by a crazed stalker in a hooded black jumpsuit. Their cat’s severed head falls out of the icebox. Clock radios come on at ungodly hours. Downloaded songs blast through the computer. Then the wife disappears without a trace and the husband’s sister-in-law suspects him of murder. The distraught husband calls in the police, but nobody believes his strange story and while the cops are in the house, the voyeur is filming them, too. As the terror builds, I found myself writing the next scene in my head, imagining what horror would happen next. Strongly influenced by Hitchcock’s Rear Window but seen entirely through the lens of hand-held surveillance cameras, from the stalker’s point of view, this hair-raiser makes Randall Cole a director to keep an eye on.
Another, more welcome trend: movies about the desperate search for love in an age of apps—when today’s one-night stands are tomorrow’s Twitter. Veteran director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules) has a real winner in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an offbeat romance that teams Emily Blunt, as a marketing expert with a rich sheikh for a client who devises a project to ship 10,000 salmon to the parched riverbeds of the Middle East to introduce fishing as a sport and establish hatcheries as a new industry, with overexposed Ewan McGregor, wisely returning to his Scottish roots as a dull, humorless academic and didactic fishing expert who gets recruited against his will by the British government to supervise the project. Kristin Scott Thomas is hilarious as a self-serving public relations expert for the British prime minister, and dashing Egyptian newcomer Amr Waked is an intelligent Arab sheikh who faces political ruin and attacks by warring tribal opponents to finance the project. The premise is absurd, but as you wait on the edge of your seat to see if the salmon will follow their natural instincts and swim upstream in a blistering desert, the movie grows on you like a lichen. This is one of this year’s most popular audience favorites.
Another is The Artist, an almost totally silent film, shot in Hollywood in black and white by a French crew headed by the imaginative director Michel Hazanavicius, about the advent of talking pictures in the 1920s. The slim but unflaggingly resonant plot of this nostalgic valentine to a lost era of magic centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a matinee idol and genial ham at the zenith of stardom when sound turned everything upside down, and an ambitious little flapper named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who literally falls into his arms by accident at a red carpet premiere and years later, after achieving stardom as the biggest musical star on the silver screen, pays him back for his kindness by rescuing him from obscurity and reviving his career. For 100 delicious minutes, The Artist is a cross between the Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds romance in Singin’ in the Rain and the Norman Maine-Esther Blodgett story in A Star Is Born—a very French parfait, with John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell added to the frosting to lend American authenticity. A smash hit at TIFF, it features a major discovery in the tap-dancing Mr. Dujardin, who has the Gallic charm and insouciant charisma of a young Maurice Chevalier.