Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossien Amini from a book by James Sallis
I was so ready for this movie for a bunch of reasons. 1) Ryan Gosling is the King of Hollywood right now. He can do whatever he wants, get any movie made by showing an interest, and he’s shown that he either has a great agent or he knows what works for him. He’s a good actor making smart choices to work with the right people. So I’m interested to see his projects, even as his animal-lust appeal for many evades me. 2) Nicolas Winding Refn is my Danish filmmaking psychic brother. I really like his work. I haven’t seen the Pusher trilogy, but I have seen Bronson and Valhalla, and I liked them both a lot. 3) Refn won Best Director at Cannes for Drive. And lastly, 4) An existential automotive thriller? I’m there.
The good news is Drive delivers.
This is one of those movies where if you describe the plot you’re only getting a fraction of the what the thing has to offer, but I’ll give it a try: Gosling is a man without a name, a professional stunt driver for the movies in Los Angeles, but he moonlights as a wheelman for heists. Hard to say why. He also works at a garage for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a mechanic with connections to organized crime, connections that broke his pelvis once upon a time. One figures it was Shannon who got him into this work as a getaway driver, but who knows. Shannon has big plans for the driver to get into the stock car circuit and to turbo-charge these plans he borrows money from two Jewish gangsters, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Meanwhile, our hero is spending time with Irene (Carey Mulligan, doing the American accent flawlessly) a woman in his building and her son Bennie (Kaden Leos). The man of the house, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison, just getting out. And he has debts to pay.
So that’s the lay of the land, but as I said, hardly a comprehensive preview of what to expect if you go to Drive. Refn has made a film that’s indebted stylistically to genre films of two decades, without belonging to either, a genuine art house actioner. Gosling’s driver is cut from the same cloth as another Ryan behind the wheel, O’Neal in Walter Hill’s The Driver. Typically 1970s, Gosling’s the same solitary hero whose motivations remain opaque, but whose skill and ruthlessness are immediately evident. And then the pink font in the titles and Cliff Martinez’s insistent synths on the soundtrack, along with syrupy pop from a band called College (the song title, “A Real Hero”) are total throwbacks to the 1980s, the score to Michael Mann’s Thief, for instance, by Tangerine Dream, the act that also wonderfully scored Risky Business. With the overhead shots of the city, following the prowling cars, all that’s missing is that starry twinkle in the streetlights, rendered much colder here in the eye of the digital lens.
And still, you aren’t getting the whole picture. Though the story and style is a mix of genres, what really impresses is the care and grace of the directorial choices. Refn’s framing, use of music, sharp, shocking bursts of sound, as well as silence, is hypnotic. Where maybe some of the plot elements aren’t necessarily new, the mix of them here is, and at no time do you know where this ride is taking you. The violence, when it does come, mostly in the third act, is brutal and unrelenting. It’s when we finally understand what Gosling is capable of that we understand his world and the darkness in it.
And it’s great seeing Albert Brooks cast as the heavy. The closest he’s come to a part like this was in Out of Sight in 1998, and then he certainly didn’t wield a straight razor with such panache. I’m willing to bet Brooks has never played a role like this before, and more power to him. His Bernie Rose is a perfect eyebrow-less villain, bordering on sympathetic, until the end.
I still feel that, having said this, I haven’t really prepared you for Drive. But that’s fine, just go see it. It’s a visceral experience at the cinema, and a very good one.