He doesn’t even have a name. He’s just called The Driver.
Played by Ryan Gosling with the barest minimum of dialogue and an omni-present toothpick, our hero lives in an empty apartment and silently tinkers with classic cars at a garage run by Bryan Cranston’s greasy motormouth. Some days he fills in as a stunt driver for Hollywood, and occasionally moonlights as a wheelman during robberies. He’s that kind of iconic movie character who spends a lot of time standing off to the side while everybody else onscreen tells us how amazing he is.
With his silk scorpion jacket and brown leather gloves, The Driver is an absurd, larger-than-life archetype, and the giddy pleasure of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s feverishly entertaining Drive is just how in love with its very “movie-ness” this movie is. From the opening pink-script credits set against a nocturnal L.A. backdrop and seething synth-pop score, it’s obvious we’re watching a carefully honed skill set of loving Michael Mann-erisms. Set in present day, yet pulsating with a distinctly 1980s glow, it’s a boiler-plate genre picture pumped up with a painterly sensibility. Every shot seems designed with the explicit intention to make you nod your head appreciatively and mutter, “awesome.”
Refn throws down the gauntlet right away, with a hair-raising getaway as Gosling cannily maneuvers his car around cops who don’t even know yet that they’re supposed to be chasing him. Working from what he can glean from a boosted police scanner, The Driver employs an encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles streets and an uncanny knack for hiding in plain sight. It’s a low-speed masterpiece of a chase sequence, relying more on quick-wittedness than horsepower, and you may briefly wonder how the movie will be able to top it—but trust me, there’s no reason to fret.
As always in a picture like this, there’s a woman. Carey Mulligan’s Irene lives down the hall, and The Driver can’t seem to keep himself from looking longingly at her in the elevator. She’s got a kid, Benicio (Kaden Leos) and unfortunately they’re waiting for her husband to get out of jail. A chaste, tentative courtship ensues, and Refn goes full tilt ’80s puppy-love giddy, making great use of Gosling’s and Mulligan’s baby faces. For a brief spell, you might think you’re watching a John Hughes movie.
But when her husband, the curiously named Standard (Oscar Issac) finally gets out of the joint, he’s got a bit of baggage. I don’t know of any dude who would be very happy about Ryan Gosling hanging around with his wife and kid all day, but Standard has bigger problems. There’s a debt to a gang, and a heist that needs to go down. Before long we’ve got ominous henchmen giving young Benico bullets to play with as toys. The Driver is not amused.
I’m hesitant to reveal much more, not because the story is filled with surprises, but because the plot doesn’t really matter in something like this. Sure, there’s a bag of money and some guns, but atmosphere is everything, and Drive is positively dripping with it. Based on a novel by James Sallis, the screenplay is by Hossein Amini, who’s better known for tony literary adaptations like Jude and The Wings Of The Dove. His script here is probably 60 pages long, as the movie excels in long wordless passages marrying music and lush cinematography to glorious effect.
The Driver ultimately earns the ire of Bernie Rose, a mid-level Jewish gangster played—in a bit of magnificently subversive stunt-casting, by Albert Brooks. There’s always been a palpable anger lurking just under the surface in Brooks’ nebbishy comedies, and the genius of the performance here is in how easily his humor can downshift into menace. Once Brooks starts going to town with a straight razor and a restaurant fork, you might never be able to watch Broadcast News again.
Danish director Refn made his bones with cult favorites Bronson and the Pusher trilogy. Drive is his first “Hollywood movie,” and he seems to have fallen madly in love with all that it implies. It’s romantic in both the capital and lowercase sense of the word, positioning his performers as icons in front of these expansive L.A. landscapes. He even gets Gosling to tamp down his usual Method noodling—the fussy young actor embraces stillness for the first time, emerging as a Tiger Beat Steve McQueen.
OK, so it’s a bit self-conscious. But also so dreamy, ultraviolent and confidently, swaggeringly made— Drive is pulp delirium. Anybody got a toothpick?
Read our interview with Director Nicolas Winding Refn here.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston