Film review by: Witney Seibold
The unnamed lead character in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Drive,” who is credited merely as “Driver,” is a cipher. He rarely speaks. His face is always blank. He is a no-nonsense fellow who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood. Despite his badass 1980s scorpion jacket, and his love for noisy muscle cars, he doesn’t seem to live for flash. He works as a mechanic’s shop, and, it is implied in dialogue, he would do so for free, just for the pleasure of handling cars and working with machines. He is, like the machines he loves, built to move forward. He has two modes; blank faced, still, in a parked position; and growling forward at a gut-churning, speed-limit-breaking pace. When, by the film’s climax, he is determined to start doing violence, we can understand why. That is all he knows.
“Drive” is a brutal, incredibly stylized action thriller that almost plays like a music video crossed with a Beckett play. As if the vehicle fetish from a clunky Michael Bay film wandered its way into the contemplative Valley love letters of Paul Thomas Anderson. Each shot is carefully laid out, and the screen is constantly fluttering with heavy, spatial meaning. That Ryan Gosling plays the lead role only helps, as he can be intense without having to move, or indeed making any sort of recognizable change to his facial expression. Gosling is one of the better actors of his generation, and even if he is driven by simple violence and a workmanlike view of criminal activity, we’re still close to his mind the whole time.
The driver lives next to a pretty neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. The boy’s father is in prison, and the two adults begin to form a tentative romantic bond. They do little more than help each other with groceries, and there is a sweet scene where they hold hands, but Refn is sure to make us know that these two are actually kind of falling in love. When the imprisoned husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home, our antihero finds himself offering to help him out of some criminal circles by driving the getaway car for a pawn shop heist. The film most so naturally between the world of tinkering at a mechanics, and the hard work of crime and violence, that we begin to feel that Driver can’t really tell the difference. They’re both jobs that need to be done with skill. He is defined by his work ethic.
Our hero is also involved with some shady organized crime types. His mechanic boss (Bryan Cranston) dreams of racing cars, and knows our boy can do it. In order to get the money for a race, however, they need to tap the resources of a local mob guy (a surprisingly scary Albert Brooks). There’s also a ringleader in the shallow Nino (Ron Perlman). All the stories will eventually, of course, link up, but Refn is careful to steer clear of the big reveal. This is a movie less about plot machinations, and more about mood. Like a quiet, sinister jazz piece, it saunters along unexpectedly, climaxing in a bout of aural violence that will leave splatters on your clothing.
Many may find the film a bit too mannered for its own good. Too cold. Not quite engaging enough. It was, perhaps, a little too casually violent for its own good too (there’s a scene involving a straight razor, and other involving a boot, that were a little hard to take). But Refn is a skilled director with a definite aesthetic (he knows what he can do with a camera), and proves, with “Drive” that he can make a mood piece as well. What’s more, the acting is superb, and Gosling in particular continues his streak of intense, unaffected performances.