Smart, slick, stylish ‘Drive’ ready to hit the road
Ryan Gosling does not typically make safe acting choices. After gaining attention a decade ago as a Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead in The Believer, Gosling has crafted an impressive resume in chameleon-like range of roles—from the romance of The Notebook, to eccentric comedies like Lars and the Real Girl and Crazy, Stupid Love, to the intense indie dramas Half Nelson (for which he racked up an Oscar nomination) and Blue Valentine.
So when Gosling decides to do an action movie, there’s a reasonable chance it won’t be the usual Hollywood sellout. It will, in fact, be a movie like Drive, a lean, streamlined, stylish suspense thriller, with a very particular sense of mood. Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn has his own smart ideas about crafting suspense and delivering thrills. And with Gosling on board—literally, in the driver’s seat—this is one slick, souped-up vehicle ready to hit the road.
Based on the James Sallis novel, Drive was adapted by scriptwriter Hossein Amini (better known for more literary adaptations like Jude and Wings of the Dove). Gosling stars as literally a man with no name; the credits refer to him simply as “Driver,” while others onscreen just call him “Kid.” He’s a Hollywood movie stunt car driver by day, flipping faux police cars while the cameras roll (after signing a liability waiver in case of injury or death), under the tutelage of crusty mechanic/ex-racecar driver Shannon (Bryan Cranston).
But it’s a different story at night, when he hires out as wheelman for petty criminals operating in the greater Los Angeles area. His contacts are made anonymously over the phone, and his rules are simple: he doesn’t want to know anything about the job, he’ll arrive at a designated time and place and provide a five-minute window, and he doesn’t carry a gun—he drives. We see how it all works in the tense opening sequence when he picks up a pair of burglars and deftly eludes pursuit via side streets and back alleys—or simply by standing still with the lights off, even as a police helicopter searchlight sweeps the area like the sinister beam of an alien mothership.
But of course, it doesn’t always go off like
clockwork. After the taciturn Driver forms a tentative bond with neighbor, Irene (a pert, wistful Carey Mulligan), and her little boy, Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes back into the picture after a stint in prison. Standard wants to go straight, but needs to pay off one last debt to his old associates. To protect Irene and her son, Driver reluctantly gets involved, and from then on it’s an escalating spiral of mayhem as Driver takes on ever more
sinister and powerful opponents—from various hit men and henchmen all the way up to a local crime boss (Albert Brooks, whose bland geniality works to great effect in this context) and his volatile business partner (Ron Perlman).
There are moments of sudden, appalling violence. (No wonder Driver doesn’t carry a gun; he can improvise a weapon out of anything, or intimidate by the sheer force of his presence, with no weapon at all.) But what’s most remarkable about the action here are the long stretches of edgy silence as Driver watches and listens—knuckles crack, leather gloves creak, ambient noise fades away to nothing. The sense of danger is unnervingly acute. Or Refn will do something completely original, like insert a long, swoony kiss when we’re expecting all hell to break loose. When a loathsome crook is beaten to mush in a dressing room full of strippers, not one woman screams or runs away. They all silently take it in stride; the violent scenes, like everything else in this movie, are quick, efficient, and mysterious.
As is Driver himself in Gosling’s terrific performance. He doesn’t say much, hardly ever breaks a sweat, but we sense deep feeling just below the surface. We don’t know where he comes from, why he takes the wheelman jobs (he lives so simply, he doesn’t seem to need the money), or where he’s learned his particular skills. None of which matters: Gosling’s commanding presence fuels this wild ride. Watch film trailer >>>
DRIVE ★★★ With Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, and Albert Brooks. Written by Hossein Amini. From the novel by James Sallis. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. (R) 100 minutes.