Sophistication behind the wheel
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 16, 2011
Star of the moment Ryan Gosling delivers a slow, white-hot burn of a performance in "Drive," a nervy, understated ode to one of Hollywood's most cherished archetypes, the sad-eyed man of few words.
They can be cowboys, hit men or, in this case, loners who drive cars for a living. But no matter how chilly and reserved, the mysteries at their core mesmerize rather than repel.
As a getaway driver known only as Driver, Gosling obviously harks back to similar protagonists played by Ryan O'Neal, Lee Marvin, Robert De Niro and especially Steve McQueen.
But in "Drive," Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn neatly manage the hat trick of paying homage to those wheelmen of yore while reinvigorating the genre with style, smarts and flashes of wit. You may still want to fasten your seat belts, but in these capable, seductive hands you're in for a smooth, uncommonly assured ride.
That's made clear in the opening sequence of "Drive," when Gosling's character fetches two thieves from a Los Angeles warehouse. Found out by the police, who begin to pursue them by way of patrol cars and a helicopter, Driver leads the fuzz not on the wheel-screeching, bombastic chase audience might expect, but on a quiet, cat-and-mouse prowl through Los Angeles's nighttime back streets, winding up in the endless proscenium arches of a parking garage.
At once classic and refreshingly new, the sequence establishes Driver's watchful calm and psychic mettle, as well as Refn's indisputable chops as a filmmaker with firm command of tone, rhythm and irresistibly propulsive pacing.
It turns out that Driver's getaway gig is just a sideline; his day job becomes clear in one of the all-time great movie "reveals," which makes "Drive" not just a fast-car action picture but a wry commentary on Hollywood artifice (which will come in handy later when someone covered in blood needs to blend in with a crowd).
Carey Mulligan, as Driver's new neighbor Irene, may be completely miscast as the wife of a low-level criminal named Standard (the terrific Oscar Isaac), but her chemistry with Gosling is entirely believable, not least because Refn chooses to convey it through lyrical sequences of shy glances and wordlessly eloquent gestures.
Far more persuasive, however improbably, is Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, a seedy criminal middle-manager who like everyone in L.A. tried his hand in the biz, in his case as a producer. "One critic called them European," he wistfully recalls of his movies. Later, in one of the movie's most chilling scenes, he sweet-talks and soothes a hapless victim while he quietly slips a shiv in his arm, effecting a flawless balance between nebbishness and menace.
Refn, a Danish director whose previous films include "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising," is known for his love of blood, and when the plot of "Drive" quickens he finds plenty of chances to indulge in his penchant for lurid, stylized violence. But even his most fetishized flourishes are tempered here, not just with the tender love story between Irene and Driver but with Refn's newfound restraint (one pivotal murderous episode occurs entirely in shadow).
After skillfully earning the audience's allegiance, "Drive," which is based on the novel by James Sallis, throws its hero's motives into more troubling ambiguity, with Gosling's grievous angel proving to be capable of startling brutality. Like the scorpion on his jacket, he can't escape his nature, and Refn does a good job of keeping that core moral essence opaque until the explosive end. He's also constructed a perfect showcase for Gosling's hangdog charisma, which has come into its own this year first with "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and next with "The Ides of March."
A poster for the latter has his face morphing with George Clooney's, and the comparison is apt; indeed "Drive" recalls two of Clooney's best and recent movies, "Michael Clayton" and "The American."
Like "Michael Clayton," "Drive" is a hushed, methodical ode to competence, a wistful wish-fulfillment fantasy in an age of mass screw-uppery. Like "The American," it's almost abstract in its willingness to eschew conventional plotting and dialogue for a subtle sound design and crisp, clean imagery.
Most important, like Clooney's best movies, "Drive" features a compulsively watchable cipher at its center. Low-key, sleek and sophisticated, "Drive" provides the visceral pleasures of pulp without sacrificing art. It's cool and smart. Some critics might even call it European.
Contains strong brutal bloody violence and some nudity.