The Driver (Ryan Gosling) has no need for a name. He embodies his job description — a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. Life outside of the 1973 Chevy Malibu, his vehicle of choice, is anonymous. That is, until Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives down the hall, walks into the Driver’s life. Irene is a single mother, caring for her son while Standard (Oscar Issac of “Sucker Punch“) languishes in prison. But Standard is due to be out soon enough, and while Driver plays father figure for several lovely days, the quiet man embodied with moments of precise rage by Gosling will soon be thrust into an increasingly convoluted criminal scheme. His survival is improbable, leaving many grisly scenes in its wake but the Driver never slows his pace, or lets down his guard.
Add this author to the quickly growing cult of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a genre picture that is as unstoppable as its main character, furious and gentle in equal parts, a complete triumph of style over substance and yet not insubstantial. The Onion’s AV Club deemed it “retro genre heaven” and it’s tempting to agree — but it’s also an American thriller filtered through the mind of a European fan, the pacing distinctly Refn-esque. There is a fascination with details, like the Driver’s clothes becoming more and more blood splattered as he racks up a kill count. There is the man himself, almost mute and just a tidbit less imposing than the One Eye of “Valhalla Rising.” The fact that Gosling can stir up genuine tension despite his pretty-boy looks is one of this movie’s many victories.
The men that come in conflict with Driver over a botched crime scheme are Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks — imagine if Hank Scorpio wasn’t a cartoon villain but a toned down career criminal) and Nino (Ron Perlman, in full-on gangster mode and granted one defining stand-out scene). Rose is the brains and Nino the muscle and yet the two are notably human, hardly caricatures or bland, faceless villains. By sheer bad luck, Rose happens to be the primary investor in a race car that Gosling would have been set to drive. Rose is bolstered by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a permanently down-on-his-luck mechanic who owns a garage that Driver occasionally toils in between transporting criminals and crashing cars in the movies. Cranston’s Shannon is a sad-sack case who doesn’t realize he’s doomed from the on-set and a late scene with Cranston and Brooks is startlingly sad.
Is it wrong to characterize Drive as an action movie? Maybe insofar as present action templates are concerned — this film is dead-set against trading silence for overwhelming noise. Refn understands the value of the moments before and after the onslaught and milks them with merciless efficiency. It serves the film better than you can imagine, aided with another excellent Cliff Martinez score, playing like a winking Tangerine Dream cover band. Evocative and exact lighting by Newton Thomas Sigel (Bryan Singer’s DP of choice) solidifies a key moment in an elevator as one of the year’s best stand-alone scenes.
There’s a lot to like and love about Drive and perhaps that’s why this review reads more like a best-of compilation than straight-forward criticism. To fall under the spell of the film is to be reminded why you love movies in the first place — in part because the films you love are ones you can watch with friends, eying their facial expressions like you’re nursing an addiction, the satisfaction of reliving the same moments that floored you through them. Drive is a film that spins a little substance into movie magic, and invites you to bask in it (while sneaking in deliriously over-the-top violence and well-executed car chases). It’s the total package; not a perfect film, but in a way an inimitable triumph — a unique coalition of director, actors, and crew.