As stripped-down and propulsive as its robotic title, Drive is the most "American" movie yet by Danish genre director Nicolas Winding Refn. The film, for which Refn was named best director last May in Cannes, is a sleek, tense piece of work that, as a vehicle for Ryan Gosling, has a kind of daredevil control, swerving the actor dangerously close to and abruptly away from self-parody.
The plot could nearly be inscribed on the head of a pin: A chivalrous loner participates in an armed robbery to help out the woman he loves; the deal turns out to be a setup, and the body count explodes. As amply demonstrated by the Pusher trilogy (1996-2005) and Bronson (2008), Refn is primarily a stylist, and this tale of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a hired wheelman and gets played for a patsy is a lovingly assembled, streamlined pastiche of '80s movies and television. The most obvious reference is Walter Hill's schematic action flick The Driver: This 1978 paean to professional cool in the person of Ryan O'Neal more or less provides Drive's title, premise, uninflected anti-hero and straightforward existentialism, as well as its two-dimensional-period attitude.
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Drive is nominally set in the present day, but the 40-year-old director elects to emphasize the retro. The action is set to a near-subliminal LinnDrum, and the soundtrack is awash in mournful, exalted, romantic techno-pop. (In his interviews, Refn has suggested that Drive's programmatically chaste love story between Gosling's no-name character and Carey Mulligan's single mom Irene is an eccentric remake of his personal teenage favorite, Sixteen Candles.) The shabby apartment house where Gosling's "driver" lives down the hall from the depressed yet sparkly Irene might be the Deep River apartment that serves as Isabella Rossellini's lair in Blue Velvet, and the secondary casting has a definite '80s flavor. Reagan-era television's noblest monster, Ron Perlman, appears as the movie's crassest villain while Albert Brooks, the period's most significant comic director, plays a murderous, money-lending ex-producer.
Doling out his lines in an adenoidal whisper, Gosling is an understated hero in the Eastwood-McQueen tradition — almost ridiculously so: His trademark toothpick is a minimalist equivalent of the raunchy cheroot Eastwood gnaws in his spaghetti Westerns. Gosling's is a totally reactive performance: Whatever the provocation, he waits a beat to respond. His silence (and friendly if fixed Mona Lisa smirk) trumps everyone else's bravado. Weirdly agreeable, Gosling's driver sincerely enjoys watching television with Irene's adorable kid and is willing to undertake a dangerous job gratis to help out her husband (smoldering Oscar Isaac), newly returned from the slammer. The heist is the hinge. Let the mayhem begin.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Hossein Amini. Based on the book by James Sallis. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks.
Interview with Drive Director Nicolas Winding Refn on The Mixmaster
It's one of Drive's jokes that, over the course of the movie, Gosling's spiffy silver jacket (emblazoned with a totemic scorpion on the back) will be increasingly bloodstained. Refn's most obvious break with the airbrushed '80s, and clearest link to his own early films, is the ultraviolent, even gruesome splatter. (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks perambulates onto the scene just long enough to get her head blown off.) The Gosling character is not only a master of high-speed bumper cars but, when riled, also a near-lunatic killer who, as up close and personal as the protagonist of Refn's Bronson, uses a hammer, some steel-tipped footwear and his bare hands to take care of business.
Both times I've seen Drive, audiences were audibly amused by Gosling's outbursts. The violence is laughable not so much because it is excessive but because it so thoroughly pulverizes the driver's otherwise dent-proof façade. The gag even works twice (as does the movie). Refn's protag attacks one baddie in a dressing room full of soigné strippers and stomps another to a pulp only minutes after the shy proposal he offers Irene. Gosling has the timing to carry it off, but the professional here is Refn. This grindhouse risibility is totally strategic — at once counterpoint to the movie's old-school suspense and an antidote to its out-front sentimentality. Basically, Drive is a song of courtly love and devotion among the automatons. It's a machine, but it works.