Driver, the nameless hero of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (as played by Ryan Gosling), drives. That’s all he does. He drives as a stuntman in Hollywood movies in-between working at a garage. And oh yeah, he’s also a pretty good getaway driver for robberies around the city, too, but only if you play by his rules. Based on the pulp novel of the same name by James Sallis, “Drive” is purposefully devoid of the excesses usually found in these types of Hollywood filmmaking. Refn, who previously directed “Valhalla Rising” and “Bronson” (with Tom Hardy), as well as the “Pusher” trilogy, has created a soft-spoken and self-assured hero that oozes cool. Driver is the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind having as a friend, but man, you don’t want this guy as an enemy.
Our hero lives what you could call a Spartan existence. When he’s not driving cars for Hollywood movies, he’s working in the garage of a broken down buddy named Shannon (“Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman himself still dreaming of something big happening. As far as a social life goes, Driver spends a lot of his time alone until he meets his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mom with a young son. Irene has a husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac, “Sucker Punch”), but he’s currently in the joint — though his time is about up. In the meantime, Driver makes time with Irene, and it’s in these sequences that Refn allows for the chemistry to naturally develop between the two. When Driver finally makes his move, it’s inside an elevator, featuring a beautiful scene that turns ridiculously brutal moments later.
Now out of prison, Standard, at first peeved at Driver for spending time with his old lady, soon needs his capable neighbor’s help to get out of a debt. Driver agrees, and finds himself involved in a quickly escalating series of violent encounters. Meanwhile, Shannon’s racing dreams with a pair of shady gangsters (played with quiet villainy by Albert Brooks and his partner, Ron Perlman) also force their way into Driver’s life; yet two more problems for our laconic hero to sort out. He does so with cool detachment, armed with an ice cold confidence and of course, a nifty jacket with a scorpion emblazon in the back. When you can make a jacket like that work in Los Angeles, let’s face it, you can do pretty much anything.
“Drive” is brutally, realistically violent and it has style to burn, but it also has real heart. The Driver-Irene scenes are impossibly romantic, with Gosling and Mulligan putting out a ton of heat without saying very much. Long glances, knowing smiles, and just good acting goes a long way. There are some great works by the supporting cast, in particular Cranston as the down-on-his-luck Shannon, with Brooks and Perlman very effective as the criminal element that brings out the more violent side of Driver. And “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks has a brief but memorable cameo. As you might expect given the hero’s occupation and the title, “Drive” features a couple of nifty car chases, but surprisingly, it’s outside the vehicles that the movie really excels. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many car chases that it takes a lot to really get me excited.
I haven’t really seen much of Gosling that I could swear by the guy’s talents, but “Drive” is a great showcase for him. The coolness with which Driver goes about his business is captivating, and Gosling so embodies the role that I’ll have a hard time not picturing him in that scorpion jacket in the future. Which brings me to Nicolas Winding Refn’s direction. It’s hard to overstate just what a fantastic job Refn does with every single facet of the film, from the music to the visuals to the pulsating noir vibe. “Drive” looks, feels, and sounds cool from beginning to end, all the elements of filmmaking selected for maximum effect. The excellent, throwback-ish soundtrack that somehow makes synth pop more than just bearable, it even adds to the film’s retro vibe certainly doesn’t hurt.
“Drive” is the kind of movie that I can see becoming a cult hit, which would be disappointing because that would mean it didn’t find an audience when it opens this Friday. Hard as it is to believe, but “Drive” might just be the most stimulating film of the year, even more so than all the big-budget comic book movies and films with a gazillion times its budget. The film just sings (and punches … and kicks). Maybe it’s Refn’s European sensibilities at work, putting a Euro spin on a classically American genre that makes “Drive” so familiar and at the same time so different. Of course, Refn (with assist from screenwriter Hossein Amini) doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but man, does the guy know how to make a really, really good version of it.
Nicolas Winding Refn (director) / Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
CAST: Ryan Gosling … Driver
Carey Mulligan … Irene
Bryan Cranston … Shannon
Albert Brooks … Bernie Rose
Oscar Isaac … Standard
Christina Hendricks … Blanche
Ron Perlman … Nino