High-octane…Adrenaline-fuelled…Pedal to the metal…Turbo-charged…Balls to the wall… These are all driving and speed-related clichés you’ll probably read in other reviews of Pusher director Nicolas Winding Refn’s crime thriller Drive so let’s get them out of the way now. Similarly, let’s get rid of crash and burn, buckle up, collision course and star vehicle. An existential, neo-noir in the tradition of Michael Mann’s classic Thief or Walter Hill’s The Driver, Drive a lot closer to a modern Western (swapping horses for cars and a Man With No Name in Ryan Gosling’s nameless Driver) than the wham-bam action of The Transporter or Fast and Furious movies.
By day, a stunt driver in Hollywood B-movies, by night, the best getaway driver in the City of Angels, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a taciturn, toothpick-chewing loner who exists only to drive. You put him behind the wheel, there’s nothing he can’t do. His rules are simple: “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours, no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive.” Nothing else exists for him. Other than employer and middle man Shannon (Bryan Cranston) he has no friends, no close ties, nothing he can’t walk away from. Bound by his own moral code, he lives a simple, almost monastic, existence.
Life gets complicated however when he falls for waitress and single mom Irene (a luminous Carey Mulligan) who’s literally the girl next door, entering into a tentative, budding romance and bonding with her young son Benicio. Just when things are going well, Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), gets paroled from prison and returns home, intent on going straight. Standard owes a lot of money to some very nasty people however who want him to do a little job for them. When thugs threaten Irene and Benicio, leaving Standard bloody and beaten, the Driver is compelled to act, offering to help out on the job. But when the botched job explodes into violence and double-cross, the Driver’s going to need to rely on more than his skills behind the wheel to survive as he’s forced into conflict with two middle-aged mobsters (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman)…
Visually and aurally the film is almost a throwback to the ‘80s as Gosling navigates the glittering, nighttime cityscape to a cheesy pop synth soundtrack, cocooned from the world in his ‘70s muscle car, Refn’s LA a dark, gritty, minimalist vision of Hell, glistening, neon-splashed. The plot may be a familiar rag-bag of clichés but Refn has created a bold, muscular, beautiful crime flick from Hossein Amini’s intelligent, pared to the bone script which focuses on character rather than macho heroics. The dialogue is a joy of terse, hard-bitten exchanges. When Gosling is first introduced to pragmatic crime boss Albert Brooks, he apologises that his hands are a little dirty, Brooks philosophically replies “So are mine.” On learning Gosling is a stunt driver, Brooks sums up the whole film, confiding: "I used to make movies in the '80s. Action films, sexy stuff - one critic called them European."
Like all good existential heroes, Gosling’s Driver is a man defined purely by his actions. His performance is magnetic. Channeling every cinematic, taciturn, loner anti-hero from Steve McQueen to Clint Eastwood by way of Alain Delon and Takeshi Kitano, Gosling is almost mute, a raging stillness at the heart of the film whose placid surface masks both a shy vulnerability and an almost Old Testament capacity for wrath. As the achingly cute girl next door, Mulligan is almost heartbreakingly good and their scenes together crackle with longing; their romance played out in glances, stares, blinks and half-smiles, a study in delayed-gratification. When they’re around each other, their shy awkwardness is palpable; his voice quivers, she almost basks in his schoolboy grin. The moment when they finally consummate their relationship; a tender, lingering slo-mo kiss in an elevator, is swooningly romantic, a breathless, beautiful piece of cinema which suddenly erupts into horrific, unspeakable brutality as Gosling attacks and kills an assailant, shockingly stomping his head to gory mush.
The supporting cast is fantastic. Isaac, the pantomime villain of Zack Snyder’s vacuous live-action cartoon Sucker Punch, brings depth and sensitivity to the role of Standard. As Shannon, Driver’s friend and employer, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is noble and squirrelly in equal measure, a perpetual loser, dreaming of one last big score while Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks is a Jessica Rabbit-esque femme fatale. She’s not bad, she’s drawn that way. Hellboy Perlman is excellent as a bitter, small-time mobster with almost teenage delusions of grandeur but even better is funnyman Brooks, both sympathetic and terrifying as Perlman’s more level-headed partner with a propensity for offhand viciousness and a fondness for razors.
As with all Refn’s films, Drive is exquisitely paced. Taut and unpredictable, suffused with menace, the film’s calm longeurs build into tense, action set-pieces, brutality exploding from nowhere. You both dread and long for these staccato outbursts of violence. A close-quarters motel shootout is messy and savage. Brooks almost casually stabs a victim in the eye with a fork. Gosling’s Driver becomes almost a supernatural, hammer-wielding force of justice. Part-superhero, part-sociopath, his distinctive silver satin jacket becoming increasingly bedraggled, reflecting his state of mind, both steeped in blood. Ultimately though, it’s the quiet, almost hypnotic, moments that stay with you after the fury; the stolen glances between Gosling and Mulligan, the tentative touches, the smiles that speak louder than any line of dialogue.
Thrilling, intense and icily cool, Drive is a sublime cinematic experience.
Nicolas Winding Refn
Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac
Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis