‘Drive’ locks down its cool, penetrating gaze in the opening shots. The film, a character study dressed in the wrapping paper of a stylish thriller, unfolds like an acid-tipped rose, its petals spitting poison with unsettling, violent flourishes.
The unnamed lead character (Ryan Gosling) is a getaway driver with established ground rules that serve to protect him in the event that the anonymous criminals he chauffeurs around Los Angeles somehow manage to bungle the job. He lives to drive; he doesn’t come fully alive until he’s behind the wheel and fully engaged with the vehicle. He makes a living by day as a mechanic at a garage run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who secures him work both in the criminal underworld and as a stunt driver for movies. In turn, Shannon works for Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a veteran movie producer and race car aficionado whose business partner is Nino (Ron Perlman), a decidedly sleazy-looking criminal type.
The driver lives quietly in an apartment building; one of his neighbors is the extremely pretty Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother with a young child and a young husband in prison. The driver and the neighbor begin a tentative romance that comes to a halt when she reveals that her husband, named Standard (Oscar Isaac), is about to be paroled. Standard is a standard-issue seedy low-life, but he has affection for his wife and child, and the driver decides to help him pull off a job. Naturally, things go wrong.
Describing ‘Drive’ in those words doesn’t begin to do justice to the narrative rhythms and visual style that director Nicolas Winding Rehn applies to the screenplay by Hossein Amini, who adopted a novel by James Salli. The look and feel are easily traceable to Walter Hill (‘The Driver’) and Michael Mann (‘Thief’), but the driver’s attitude and bearing can also be ascribed to Peter Yates (‘Bullit’) or even further back to Sergio Leone (‘A Fistful of Dollars’).
Beyond its specific, overt influences, ‘Drive’ is very much a modern film noir, its doomed characters fighting against their fate to the last breath. To say they are doomed is not to spoil the movie, but to convey the attitude of the players: They are kicking and screaming all the way to the gallows. Refn then layers his own thematic concerns into the cracks, pouring his heart into the material until it becomes his own, and of a piece with his previous films (the ‘Pusher’ trilogy, ‘Bronson,’ ‘Valhalla Rising’).
Gosling is anti-magnetic in the role of the nameless driver. His good looks and cool manner draw attention, but the apparent emptiness of his soul take away from his attractive appearance and makes it possible to question his intelligence. Some critics have suggested that he is mentally-deficient, or at least learning-challenged, but, to me, he falls fully in line with Clint Eastwood’s A Man With No Name or Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullit or Ryan O’Neal’s equally nameless driver or James Caan’s Frank (notice any naming pattern, there?). Gosling’s driver is incredibly observant, but keeps his thoughts to himself. It’s a well-drawn characterization and a very good performance.
Albert Brooks gets to show his dark side, more so than ever before, but it’s really only the flip side of the often-desperate characters he created for himself in ‘Modern Romance’ and ‘Lost in America,’ the difference being that Bernie Rose has allowed his primal instincts to flourish unbridled. Bernie Rose does not make a distinction between the cutthroat world of Hollywood and the criminal underground.
By extension, that applies to the other characters as well. The universe in which ‘Drive’ exists is coarse and prone to horrible violence. Yet it also’s a stylish place with a rockin’ soundtrack, a place where, if you look very hard, you might find a little beauty and peace stuffed in the corners.
‘Drive’ is now playing wide across the Metroplex.