“Drive’”s protagonist probably has a name. We assume he was raised by family earlier in life and he received some form of education. None of this matters when we meet him. In the present, he is “The Driver” to his enemies and “Kid” to his kindly, crippled employer. This is the information that counts.
The Driver (Ryan Gosling) lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a getaway driver by night and a Hollywood stunt driver by day. He spends some time at a car garage with his employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who manages all of the Driver’s business, seemly or not. The rest of the day he tinkers with car parts in his dimly lit apartment. “I drive,” he says when asked about his job. We believe him.
He is the mysterious centerfold of a genre-blurring, supremely intelligent film from Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn. The Driver possesses all the hallmarks of a Western lead—no name, a singular purpose in life, a stoic, honor-driven approach to emotion—even as he dwells in a setting of neo-noir urban decay and ’80s cop show gloss. When the plot finally kicks into full gear, he is thrust into a conflict mixing high romance, drama, action and horror. All that is missing is slapstick comedy and the kitchen sink.
This stylistic collage succeeds because Refn ties it together into a simple enough, though artfully told, story, where characters are never overshadowed by the filmmaking craft. It would have been easy to provide a few minute’s exposition before cutting to cars piling up and brains splattering on walls. Refn knows to take his time. We need to meet and care for the characters before the movie overruns with violence.
The first 40 minutes are devoted to that purpose, as we first witness The Driver in the midst of his nighttime business, carting two burglars about LA streets away from police. It is not a high-octane chase, as a Fast & Furious movie would have made it, but a jumpstart game of cat and mouse. The skills he uses here—the bursts of speed around traffic, flicking off his headlights and hiding in alleys—eventually inspire Shannon to hook up with two gangsters and arrange for The Driver’s new stint as a racecar driver. He sees potential in the kid’s talent, something beyond movie studios and criminal underworlds. Meanwhile, The Driver involves himself with a mother living next door, Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose son provokes some emotion in The Driver’s depths. Ryan Gosling succeeds in finding the right line to straddle between his character’s natural stoniness and a newfound, unusual warmth. He speaks quietly, in almost a boyish whisper, when addressing Irene. Looking down on her son, he smiles as de Niro did playing Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: a wide, genuine, unnerving as all hell grin.
Something akin to a romance forms between him and Irene. We can’t be sure. Even when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) comes back from jail, The Driver doesn’t shy away. He notices the trouble Standard is in with the mafia and offers to help. It should go without saying the gangsters Shannon is palling around with are the same threatening Standard and The Driver. It should also go without saying The Driver finds himself enmeshed in dangers he can’t, and has no desire to, drive away from.
Blood is spilled in copious amounts, once the action shifts into gear. Cars overturn and gouged eyes abound. Eight years ago, Albert Brooks played Marlin the Clownfish in Finding Nemo. Now in Drive, he’s a smooth-talking criminal who slits wrists while cooing, “It’s okay, it didn’t even hurt, it’s all over, see?” Refn never shies away from depicting this brutality, yet he is never exploitative, never crass. One of the film’s best scenes places a romantic gesture back-to-back with the mother of all head trauma, in a move both beautiful and shocking.
Drive’s biggest sin is cutting itself short. After the great build-up and onslaught of rapid action, its ending is a premature ejection from the story world we’ve immersed ourselves in. Better to want more from a movie than less, I suppose. Drive still remains an intelligent, evocative thriller, stylishly directed, wonderfully acted, filled with cool and warm colors, accompanied by a gleefully retro-futuristic electronica soundtrack and a testament to smart action filmmaking.