Buckle up for the existential bloodbath of Drive, a brilliant piece of nasty business that races on a B-movie track until it switches to the dizzying fuel of undiluted creativity. Damn, it’s good. You can get buzzed just from the fumes coming off this wild thing.
That’s Ryan Gosling at the wheel. He plays Driver (I told you it was existential), a Hollywood stunt racer who moonlights as a getaway wheel man. Gosling is dynamite in the role, silent, stoic, radiating mystery. Driver isn’t into planning robberies. He doesn’t carry a gun. “I drive,” he says. And he proves it in an opening chase scene so thrillingly intense and cleanly edited it will give you whiplash.
Sharing Drive‘s metaphorical wheel is Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, a sensation on the Euro art-house circuit with the bruising Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Refn makes his Hollywood debut with Drive without putting his soul or his balls on the auction block. Refn is a virtuoso, blending tough and tender with such uncanny skill that he deservedly won the Best Director prize at Cannes.
Drive was once intended as a fast-and-furious blockbuster for Hugh Jackman. Then Gosling stepped in and met Refn. As the actor drove the director home, the radio blasted REO Speedwagon, and Refn began rocking out. That was it. Their movie would evoke what it is to drive around listening to music and trying to feel something.
Drive is a genre movie. So watch for comparisons, especially to films of the Seventies and Eighties that pulsate with a synth score. Think early Michael Mann (Thief) and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Driver is a loner, suggesting Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Like Alan Ladd in George Stevens’ classic Western Shane, the loner meets a woman, Irene (Carey Mulligan), with a young son (Kaden Leos). She also has an ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac), so Driver must hold in his urges until, well, he can’t.
Chances are you could play the name-that-influence game for days, and I’d happily join you. But that’d be a disservice to Drive, since Refn, like Quentin Tarantino, has the gift of assimilating film history into a fresh take carrying his DNA. Take his fetishistic eye for detail, from Driver’s toothpick to the satin bomber jacket with a gold scorpion on its back.
Refn is wicked good with actors, paring down the dialogue in the script by Hossein Amini (deftly adapted from James Sallis’ novel) so that the backstory must play out on their faces. Challenge met. Gosling mesmerizes in a role a lesser actor could tip into absurdity. Bryan Cranston, on fire with Breaking Bad, brings wit and compassion to Driver’s fatherly mentor. And Mulligan is glorious, inhabiting a role that is barely there and making it resonant and whole. Prepare to be blown away by Albert Brooks, cast way against type as crime boss Bernie Rose. Brooks, an iconically sharp comic voice, has toyed with villainy before (see Out of Sight), but never like this. Brooks’ performance, veined with dark humor and chilling menace (watch him with a blade), deserves to have Oscar calling.
Violence drives Drive. A heist gone bad involving a femme fatale (an incendiary cameo from Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks) puts blood on the walls. Ditto a pounding Driver delivers at a strip club. An elevator scene with Driver, Irene and an assassin is time-capsule sexy and scary. In league with camera whiz Newton Thomas Sigel and composer Cliff Martinez, Refn creates a fever dream that sucks you in. Or maybe you’ll hate it. Drive is a polarizer. It’s also pure cinema, a grenade of image and sound ready to blow.