In a recent interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Ryan Gosling called Drive his “superhero movie.” After seeing the film, I understand his statement because his character does appear to be super-human. We never see him sleep or eat and his super power is that he has a zen-like control over automobiles. Yet his unnamed stuntman protagonist so quickly resorts to brutal, unflinching violence that it may be more apropos to call this Gosling’s antihero movie.
Drive is the eighth directorial feature from wunderkind director Nicholas Winding Refn and his latest attempt to blend reality and mythology in an intense character study. He breathes fresh life into the “heist gone wrong” genre with a style that is both a throwback to neo-noir films of the seventies and a modern portrayal of masculinity. Combine the soundtrack that sounds like it is right out of a John Hughes movie with the modern looking camera movements, use of slow-motion, and color saturation and Drive is a feast for the senses. However, as in his previous films, Refn prevents the film from being only an exercise in visual style by infusing paragraphs of character development and story into every frame.
I would say Drive “tells” a story, but I think it’s more fitting to say it “shows” the story as Refn makes masterful use of limited dialogue. The story shown is that of an unnamed stunt driver/mechanic by day, getaway driver by night (Gosling). In an opening monologue we hear repeated again later in the film he explains that he does not want to know the details of the heist, he just gives each of his “clients” 5-minutes to complete their task. We see a few early examples of his methodical approach to getaway driving that create some tension and lure the viewer into a false sense of cleanliness – unprepared for the violence that escalates in the third act.
The driver, who I will henceforth refer to as the credited name “Driver,” begins a relationship with his neighbor, a petite blonde waitress named Irene (Carey Mulligan) who cares for her son in the absence of her incarcerated husband. Their time together mostly consists of driving around Los Angeles and long, drawn out stares into each other’s eyes – while they attempt to figure one another out, Refn gives us the opportunity to do so as well. When Irene’s husband is released from jail Driver agrees to help him with a heist to get the money necessary to protect his family from a violent gang. Things go wrong, people get killed, and Driver finds himself pitted against ruthless Jewish mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).
I mentioned in the introduction that Driver exhibits little evidence of being human with his apparent lack of basic functions. He also seems to be programmatically devoid of emotions, which even in our increasingly sexually ambiguous 21st Century appears to make him more masculine. His one weakness is the same that has afflicted otherwise invincible men for years – love. When he becomes emotionally attached to Irene and her son, he compromises his own rules and makes himself vulnerable. The most outward expression of this love occurs in a cleverly contrasting scene where Refn gives us a long, slow-motion shot of Driver and Irene kissing immediately proceeded by Driver curb-stomping an attacker in front of his beloved. It’s like Refn is challenging the audience to see which extreme we react more strongly to – intense love or violent death.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel splashes Drive with neon lights and mood-specific tones that gives everything a calm, cool feeling. This scheme makes it all the more shocking when violence abruptly occurs and a splash of red blood cuts into the blue and tan hues that dominate most scenes. Not only does the color palette make the movie look delightfully retro, but it also serves to add contrast and punctuate the major themes of the movie.
Drive is appropriately metacinematic. We see Driver doing stunt work for one of his movies where actual cameras and sound equipment are in the shot. Beyond that, there is a more subtle metacinema quality in the character development. Driver is watching cartoons with Irene’s young boy when he inquires if one of the cartoon characters is a bad guy. The response from the little boy is “he’s a shark.” “Are all sharks bad?” “Well, just look at him.” Moments later we see Bernie with a cocky smile, dark jacket, and icy stare. Refn uses cartoon archetypes to frame the portrayal of a modern villain and establish that the audience knows the bad guy before he is even introduced as evil.
Albert Brooks inhabits that villain persona brilliantly creating one of the most terrifying characters in the film. He surrounds himself with thugs, but still stands out as the most intimidating in the bunch because of his incredibly powerful presence. Ron Perlman’s performance can either be interpreted as over-the-top and silly or intentionally satirizing the types of faux-badass villains that appear in lesser heist movies (of the Fast and Furious persuasion). I prefer to think it was the latter.
The real standout, however, is Gosling who deserves just as much credit as Refn for the film’s success and gives one of the most meticulously precise performances of the year. The real skill in his performance is the incredible lack of any facial expression. Gosling must have trained his face to be so restrained, yet so powerful, giving the exact amount of characterization with each blink. He chooses not to speak when not necessary and only opens his mouth when something profound or terrifying is going to come out, like in a diner scene where he calmly threatens an old client. Gosling has proven that out of all the young actors working today, he may be the coolest.
Bottom Line: See Drive for a shot of adrenaline to the heart with an IV drip filled of character.