Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive works across time and genre. It’s set in present-day Los Angeles, uses an 80s score and soundtrack, features a tragic 50s noir protagonist, and wraps everyone up in archetypical figures that manage to feel fresh through strong performances and gorgeous cinematography. It’s a film that confidently walks the line between alienating its audience with bold choices but it never strays so far into the obtuse or the strange that you lose the hard-boiled crime story simmering underneath. It constantly challenges the audience to look away with its intensity, its thoughtfulness, and its brutality, but it’s too damn entertaining to look away.
Like all great noir protagonists, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) has a code and it makes him good at his job. He’s a stunt-driver by day, but at night his true driving talent shines when he works as a wheelman. He can outrun his pursuers when necessary, but his real strength is in his reserve and patience in the face of danger. While he attempts to keep others at a distance, he eventually warms up to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benecio. When Irene’s husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison, he comes home and owes protection money to bad folks. The Driver decides he’ll help Gabriel on a job in order to protect Irene and Benecio, but matters then fall apart as shady figures Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) come into play. Like all great noir protagonists, The Driver breaks from his code to do something honorable and it leads to his downfall.
In recent years, Gosling has become one of Hollywood’s most respected actors and in Drive he turns in a career-best performance. He plays the characters’ emotions close to the vest and tries to convey as much as possible with minor expressions. What’s remarkable is that he’s able to craft such a rich and interesting character without playing it all on the surface and then has to show how the identity deteriorates over the course of the film. It’s a bizarre mix of nobility, detachment, and violent madness but Gosling brings it all together to make an utterly compelling character who holds your attention in every single frame.
Telling a cinematic story from the POV of its protagonist isn’t simply a matter of doing a POV-shot and Gosling isn’t the only one who inhabits the Driver’s calm exterior and explosive rage. Refn matches Gosling’s performance shot for shot and it’s beautiful to see an actor’s delivery and a director’s vision work in such perfect harmony. However, when the Driver starts to emotionally unravel and struggles to understand his own identity, Refn keeps his cool and manages to balance the insanity of the action with the pathos of the main character.
The film is filled with great performances but despite having heavyweights like Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston in the cast, the biggest characters are played by Gosling and Brooks. They’re the real powerhouses and I have to give Brooks his due. You have never seen him play a character like this before and he’s tremendous as a villain who’s beguiling, intelligent, and absolutely ruthless. In some ways, The Driver and Rose are two sides of the same coin in terms of their personalities and their ethics, but that’s an essay for another time.
Plenty of essays could be written about Drive. It’s the rare film where I immediately wanted to watch it again, but would like to pause it and scribble down plenty of notes. So many great ideas swirl around hard-boiled crime story and you can get lost dissecting it as a character piece, as a product of genre cinema, or even breaking down the cleverness of the cinematography. Sometimes the visuals become overt like when the lights in the elevator dim and the Driver and Irene have their first kiss. Other times it sneaks in like when Irene tells the Driver that her husband is getting out of jail and we can see a red light reflected off their faces. Every shot is purposeful and well-constructed that you just want to take the movie frame-by-frame and sit in awe.
I’ve been a fan of Refn ever since watch the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, but his American-debut is his strongest film yet. As he did with his previous films, he takes a simple genre (in this case an action-crime flick) and twists its conventions and rethinks its possibilities and comes away with a magnificent reinvention. Drive is an exhilarating ride where the thrills are as raw and intense as the emotions.