By Brian Hall
Let’s just get this out of the way first, Ryan Gosling is captivating playing a character appropriately called The Driver in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” He’s a silent-type who exudes a million thoughts without opening his mouth – a sort of James Dean meets The Man With No Name.
Gosling makes this guy equally believable as an unshakably confident criminal, a sensitive soul who cares for the pretty woman and her little boy next door and, at the same time, a guy you wouldn’t want to cross and find standing over you with a hammer in his hand.
While a character this complex and questionable may not have a place in your everyday studio action flick, he’s right at home here in a film that itself is an interesting blend of genres and filmmaking styles. It’s a pulpy, modern-LA noir punctuated with brutal, cold-blooded violence and at the same time a film that similarly doesn’t flinch while taking its time observing a man and a woman staring flirtatiously into each others eyes. Think a ’70s car flick filled with 80’s B-movie violence directed with a European sensibility – if that makes any sense.
The Driver is a man of many talents. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver and part-time mechanic by day and a coolheaded, toothpick chompin’ getaway driver for hire by night. He’s also nursing a bit of a crush on his neighbor, a young mother named Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. After lending a hand now and then, and with some gentle nudging by his boss/father-figure Shannon (Bryan Cranston), The Driver develops a bond with Irene and her son.
Problem is she’s still married and her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is being released from prison in a matter of days. With Standard back, The Driver keeps a respectable distance but soon discovers Irene’s husband still has some dirty dealings to resolve that may eventually catch up to his wife and son. Driver stoically offers his services if it means keeping them safe. And we haven’t even gotten to Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks – taking a chilling turn – as underworld figureheads who kill without flinching and aim to spoil all the fun. Christina Hendricks also shows up as a brief but memorable accomplice.
What makes Drive interesting is its confidence in balancing affecting sentiment with B-movie brutality. Likewise, as palpable as the chemistry between Driver and Irene can be, the film’s villains come off as vague archetypes who could have easily wandered in from some ’80s Schwarzenegger film.
It’s helpful to know that director Refn has mentioned in several interviews that he approached this film as a sort of fairy tale. With that in mind, it only makes sense. The Driver is the unwavering hero. Pearlman and Brooks are villains in the broadest of strokes in intent and execution, standing in his way. And Irene is poised as a princess in a castle, waiting to be rescued. I’ll admit at first this approach threw me for a loop but once you acclimate to the world it’s an absorbing romp.
While the violence can at times be jarring and the characters occasionally erring on the side of simple, it’s Refn’s confident world-building – from his framing, composition and lighting to the dreamlike synth soundtrack – that helps you adjust to his pulpy, “fairy tale” take on love and crime in LA. It can be sweet and it can be cold but it’s a confident vision that lingers in your consciousness long after you’ve left the theater.
“Drive” opens Sept. 16.