A nameless wheelman (Ryan Gosling, “Crazy Stupid Love”) is hired by two criminals to drive the getaway car in a warehouse robbery in the opening scene of “Drive,” the brilliant, spellbinding crime noir from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson,”) setting the tone for the film and its main character. Before the job, the driver gives some caveats: he will only wait outside for five minutes; he does not carry a gun; and he does not help out with the job in any way. He merely drives. After the job, the driver takes the robbers through downtown Los Angeles, with the only sound coming from the police scanner he uses to avoid the cops. This is not a loud, kinetic action scene. It is quiet and focused in the way the car glides through L.A. like a ghost.
“Drive” is not another wall-to-wall, brain-dead action movie. And yet, “Drive” is, in fact, one of the best movies of the year, a dark, brutally violent, almost dreamlike film that is supported by stylish direction and fantastic performances. It takes a standard B-movie plot into places many American films dare to tread.
Gosling’s nameless “Driver” works as a stuntman for action movies and as a mechanic in a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston, TV’s “Breaking Bad”). Shannon strikes a deal with notorious businessman Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, “The Simpsons Movie”) and his gangster associate Nino (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”) to sponsor a stock car built in the garage that Driver would use. Meanwhile, Driver meets Irene (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”), a woman who lives down the hall from him with a young son and a husband in prison. Driver, who rarely speaks and does not connect with people, develops a bond with Irene and her son. That is until Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, “Sucker Punch”) is released. Standard owes people money, and asks Driver to be the wheelman in a robbery that would be his family’s saving grace. When the robbery goes horribly wrong, the film’s two plots converge into a shockingly bloody quest for revenge.
The movie transcends its simple, pulpy concept thanks to Refn’s approach to the source material, which is based on a novel by James Sallis. The film is highly stylized, using slow-motion, long takes and tracking shots to further pull viewers into this strange world. Along with amazing cinematography and an 80’s-style techno score, “Drive” creates a universe that is completely immersive. Refn is clearly influenced by the work of directors like Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah, combining these influences into a single unique cinematic voice.
However, all the filmmaking technique in the world would be rendered meaningless if the actors did not provide performances to add substance to the style. Fortunately, the cast of “Drive” delivers. Gosling, with only a few lines of dialogue throughout the film, gives a great performance and creates a magnetic screen presence in the Driver. If Gosling is not the best actor working in movies today, then he is definitely the most versatile. In films as different as “The Notebook,” “Half Nelson” and “Blue Valentine,” he gives performances that showcase new facets of his immense talent. There are shades of other performances in his work here: George Clooney in “The American,” Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” and most explicitly, Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” But Gosling makes the role his own.
Like De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, the Driver has trouble connecting with people, and he meets a woman who changes how he sees the world, which leads to escalating violence. Unlike De Niro, however, Gosling’s character does not see himself as an avenging angel trying to clean up society. He is a man who finally meets someone who understands him and he goes on a mission in order to protect what he loves. Gosling makes the character’s shift into extreme violence subtle and believable.
Driver’s relationship with Irene is also believable even though the two barely speak to each other. Even though she has even less dialogue than Gosling does, Mulligan gives an excellent performance anyway, using facial gestures to convey a variety of emotions. There are long scenes with the two characters just looking at each other, but these two great actors are able to make their developing bond palpable.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally solid. Cranston is fine as the grizzled father figure to Driver. Christina Hendricks (TV’s “Mad Men”) has a very memorable cameo as a woman involved with the botched robbery. Perlman also does well with an undeveloped role, but the most shocking performance comes from Albert Brooks. Brooks is well-known for appearing in numerous comedies and doing voice work on “The Simpsons,” but he is still incredibly menacing as the film’s villain.
With its slow pace and subdued performances, “Drive” may test the patience of audiences looking for a typical action movie. But for everyone else, “Drive” is something extraordinary. Anyone with a passion for the excitement and possibilities of movies needs to experience this film.