One of the most unusual films to appear on American screens this year is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Defiantly offbeat and challengingly structured, it’s a distinctive take on the genre.
Ryan Gosling, fresh off his romcom success with Crazy, Stupid, Love, is back in serious mode as an unnamed character who is drifting through life, stunt driving for bad action movies by day and working as a getaway driver at night. Seeking to exploit his talent behind the wheel, his boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), manages to talk his boss, mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), into investing in a race car with which they can make some real money.
Driver (as Gosling’s character is listed in the film’s credits) meets and starts to fall for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a struggling young mother who lives down the hall from him and whose husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. Just as their relationship begins to blossom, she learns that Stan is about to be released.
Shortly after Stan returns home, trouble comes calling. He’s severely beaten by thugs to whom he owes protection money for refusing to pull off a heist for them. They threaten to harm Irene and Benicio as well, so Driver volunteers to pilot the getaway car on the condition that once they receive their money they’ll leave Stan and his family alone for good. What follows is a twisting and turning plot that certainly has its surprises, but to classify it as a mere action thriller doesn’t do it justice.
Driver is a man of few words. Even when he’s with Irene, he’s content to smile at her in silence, which seems to be a relief for her, because she doesn’t have to contrive something to say. All the talking is done by Shannon, Rose and Nino (Ron Perlman), Rose’s big-mouthed partner. Otherwise, the film is strikingly silent. Like Driver, when it has nothing to say, it says nothing at all, which I found refreshing in this era of jacked-up, exploding Michael Bay soundtracks.
And the film’s title doesn’t simply describe the action of getting behind the wheel and putting the pedal to the metal, although there’s plenty of that. Drive can be more accurately described by another definition—motivation; a purpose in life. Until Driver meets Irene and sees the trouble Stan is going to get her into, he’s rudderless. Now, as with Travis Bickle’s newfound purpose to rescue Iris in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, he has something to make him act. And, like Bickle, he resorts to extreme violence.
Drive pays tribute to films of many decades at once. The hot pink opening titles, swooping nighttime views of Los Angeles and Cliff Martinez’ synth score are reminiscent of Paul Brickman’s 1983 Risky Business. The grittiness brings to mind Scorsese’s ’70s films. The graphic violence is right out of Tarantino’s ’90s playbook. And with its antihero star, it also owes a debt to French existential cinema and film noir.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel provides a vivid palette for the film, using color for dramatic emphasis and giving us a well-deserved break from the endless stream of desaturated, green-tinged movies we’ve seen this decade. Even the violence—shocking as it is—is artistically rendered.
The always-reliable Cranston is good as the edgy Shannon, always looking over his shoulder as if something horrible is about to happen to him. Brooks plays against type as the cheery but cold-blooded Rose. Mulligan is a good match for Driver, and the many scenes in which not a word is exchanged between them nevertheless have emotional heft. Gosling has never been more internalized. Here, he’s acting mostly with his eyes and gestures, and it’s mesmerizing.
If you go into Drive thinking you’re going to see a Fast and Furious clone, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to be challenged by some really distinctive and rewarding filmmaking, this one’s for you.