The plot of the movie involves a Hollywood stuntman (Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman for heists. He gives his clients a five-minute window to go in, do what they do and get out. He leaves after five minutes. So the beginning of the movie has some nice, dark atmospheric scenes with some interesting action and a little chase scene. Oh, be forewarned. There will be spoilers. Especially toward the end of this post. But the reason to see or not see this movie is based more on the how it was filmed than the story. And if you like the cast. At least that's my take. Actually, you can stop reading here after I tell you that the movie gets very, very bloody and the violence is very up close and personal in the second half. Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume II is an easier film by far to watch than this was. So, from here on in there may be SPOILERS.
Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is Gosling's boss. He wants to borrow $300,000 from Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) a local gangster type to buy a race car so that Gosling can drive in races. Bernie likes what he sees but his partner/associate Nino (Ron Perlman) doesn't. Meanwhile, Gosling strikes up a friendship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benecio who live in the same apartment building as he does. Eventually Gosling learns that Irene is married and that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. Gosling, Irene and Benecio do develop a bond despite this. Then, Standard returns home much earlier than expected. Standard is quick to see the connections but makes an effort to befriend Gosling as well. Soon, Standard is beaten and Gosling finds him. The beating was a warning to Standard from his protectors in prison to remind him he needs to come up with repayment money. Gosling agrees to help Standard get the funds. Through an arrangement with Bernie, Standard and Gosling hook up with Blanche (Christina Hendricks) and attempt to rob a pawn shop with Gosling as driver. Blanche comes out of the pawn shop with a big duffel bag, then Standard comes out but the proprietor is shooting and they watch Standard die. As Gosling and Blanche drive off, they are chased by another car. They lose their followers only for Gosling to find out that Blanch has double-crossed them and there is $1 million in the duffel bag, not the $40,000 they thought they'd get. More importantly, that money has to belong to SOMEONE who wants it back. Mayhem starts ensuing and the blood starts flowing. Meanwhile, we find out that Nino had setup Standard and Gosling and was responsible for the mob money. Remember Nino? turns out he really, really didn't like Gosling.
At this point in the story, people start dying, many of them dying very gruesomely with knives. Because no one can be left alive to betray the other person to the mob who owns the money. This goes on for a while. Gosling, as the lead, of course, deftly manages to stay alive to accomplish what he wants..... protect Irene and Benecio.
Ryan Gosling's character is very quiet, both literally and figuratively - until he explodes during certain scenes. In one such scene, this is jolting, not only to the viewer (though this is telegraphed to us as blatantly as possible) but to another actor in the scene. Indeed, the movie is very visual, the cinematography is done well as is the atmosphere and the scene set-ups.
A.O. Scott of the NY Times said the supporting cast saves the movie from tedium and I agree. Certainly Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston were well worth watching, but then I usually find them so. I am also a fan of Carey Mulligan's but I don't think this role stretched her very much.
Overall, the first half of the movie was engaging but the as the plot moved into the second half, it became more gruesome and bloody. Perhaps it was the nature of the violence. The arc of the story with the anti-hero driving away just didn't leave me satisfied.