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Senior Correspondent
Drive (2011) Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Ryan Gosling is the new Marlon Brando.

I feel not even a twinge of nervousness about that statement. It’s as obvious as saying that Earth circles the sun.

Gosling is currently burning up our movie screens in the over-the-top crime melodrama “Drive”; in two weeks we’ll see him in the George Clooney political thriller “The Ides of March.”

And his earlier summer hit, the romantic comedy “Crazy Stupid Love,” is still playing.

If this guy simply ruled the box office that would be one thing. (Heck, even Steven Segal and Chuck Norris have ruled the box office.)

But the 30-year-old Gosling is also giving us a world-class tutorial on just what it means to be an actor. He elevates everything he’s in.

And unlike Brando, whose mumbling Method was ripe for caricature, Gosling seems never to repeat himself, never slips into self parody. You never know what he’s going to deliver next, and that’s the wonder of him.

His began acting for TV at age 15, then at 20 swerved deep into the world of independent cinema.

Almost from the beginning of his movie career he made smart, even dangerous choices.

In “The Believer” (2001) he played a neo-Nazi skinhead with a deep dark secret: his parents are Jewish.

“The United Sates of Leland” (2003) found him playing an inmate at a juvenile detention center.

In “Half Nelson” (2006) he was brilliant (and Oscar nominated) as a drug-addicted NYC middle school teacher.

He burned up the screen as a man whose marriage is disintegrating in last year’s “Blue Valentine,” then played a real-life killer/psycho in “All Good Things.”

And just to show he wasn’t all strum und drang, in the sublime comedy “Lars and the Real Girl” he played a sweet small-town mental case in love with a life-size plastic woman.

Even his mainstream Hollywood work has been more or less above reproach. He was the best thing about the sappy romance “The Notebook” (a hit that brought him more fans than all his indie efforts combined).

In “Stupid Crazy Love” he emerged as a genuinely sexy (as opposed to merely curious) romantic lead and held his own against comedy master Steve Carell.

Which brings us to “Drive,” a sometimes compelling, often appalling example of L.A. film noir. But if the movie is iffy, Gosling is as solid as a rock.

“Drive” introduces to mainstream American audiences Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish filmmaker of tremendous talent.

In “Drive” Gosling plays The Driver (uh-oh, it’s one of those movies), a mechanic who moonlights as a movie stunt driver and, even more dangerously, as a criminal getaway driver for hire.

Gosling has maybe 20 lines of dialogue in the film’s first 45 minutes — there are times when you wonder if the Driver has some sort of learning disability — but he’s so good at subtly expressing the character’s inner life that you can’t look at anything else. This guy can act with his fingernails. Who needs talk?

This perennial loner falls quietly and gently for a single mom (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. At the same time, he finds himself being pulled deeper into a criminal conspiracy hatched by a one-time movie producer (Albert Brooks, remarkably sinister) and a thug (Ron Perlman).

Most of the first hour is a very quiet character study and a slowly growing romance.

Then, after this promising start, “Drive” goes insanely off the tracks, delivering shifts of mood and tone so jarring as to loosen your fillings. Not to mention some violence that will shock even jaded contemporary audiences.

But here’s the thing: As much as we may want to dismiss big chunks of the film, Gosling’s performance won’t let us.

He radiates silent strength and an almost feral awareness of the world around him. He says little but you can always see what he’s thinking.

Yeah, Hossein Amini’s screenplay is really two incompatible yarns (lonely guy love story, astonishingly brutal crime yarn). And in The Driver he’s given us an utterly improbable character who should seem precious and phony.

But thanks to Gosling, it doesn’t feel like that at all. Somehow this young actor has taken the character’s disparate and conflicting elements and synthesized them into something compelling.

Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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