In “Drive,” Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed man with ice-water in his veins. There’s a tradition in cinema for hard, brutal heroes to go nameless, as if a name were a liability for a life of violence, a vestigial tool compared to his weapons.
Here, the man, simply credited as Driver, uses a car as his primary instrument. Like those unnamed heroes who carry katanas and guns, he’s good with everything. He’s lean in words, possessions, and actions. There’s the real charm of a serious, quiet man: he only moves with purpose.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive” received an amount of critical hype second only to “The Tree of Life.” With good reason. It’s an electrifying neo-noir, a strange fusion of Michael Mann and David Lynch, unbearably tense and strangely melancholic.
Driver works as a freelancer getaway man in Los Angeles, perhaps one of the only modern American cities that can effectively replicate the setting of a Western. Refn composes the city as many have come to think of it: wide, sprawling, and impossibly lonely.
Driver lives next to Irene (Carey Mulligan), a waitress with a young son and a husband nearly out of prison. They bond, quietly, as two people that possess an understanding of the world’s harshness, even if for different reasons. It’s fitting that when Driver’s fortunes go south, it’s because his affection for a woman motivates him to take risks that would otherwise never occur.
Trouble comes in the form of two gangsters, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. Audiences are used to seeing Perlman as a menace, but here’s he’s nearly benign next to Brooks, whose worrywart screen persona vanishes completely in favor of someone unrelentingly vicious. Oscar buzz for his performance is not unwarranted.
Refn shoots the film in a style that evokes 1980’s, even down to the pink font recognizable from “Risky Business.” Scored with the kind of synthesizer-heavy pop music so pervasive in the 80’s, Refn’s and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s camera moves patiently, ideally capturing the vibrancy of the city even at its most desolate.
I’ve never been a fan of Gosling for the same reason so many critics adore him: he tries. So many of his performances scream effort, when ideally we shouldn’t consider that until the credits have rolled. Here, he’s measured, fierce, hard. Another performance this good, and I’ll finally be sold.
Eventually the story comes to a point where danger lurks and death frequently pervades the scenes. The violence is especially unpleasant. I’m hard-pressed to think of another stylized thriller where the murderous acts of others seem to inflict as much pain as they appear to here. Perhaps the film’s best sequence sees a mesmerizing, lyrical David Lynch-esque moment of tenderness explode into something grisly.
Audiences expecting elaborate, flash action sequences have surely been disappointed, as indicated by the film’s mind-bogglingly low CinemaScore. Critics adore it, and I obviously sympathize; rarely does one see a genre piece crafted with such deliberate artistry.
Some have said the film ends ambiguously. I disagree. There’s uncertainty, but also a degree of clarity in the final moments, a solitary reflection on what has happened. Just remember, Driver said it himself: he drives.