There’s a long way to go this year, with a lot of high-profile movies to come, but it’s a sure bet that Drive will be in my top ten. A moody, somber film that recalls movies like Taxi Driver and Collateral, Drive is full of mystery, menace, and gallons of blood. It starts slowly, but the last half is pure adrenaline.
I will admit I had never before heard of the director, Nicholas Winding Refn, who is apparently a big deal among the cognoscenti. He was hand-picked by star Ryan Gosling, who has taken a part with fewer lines than almost any star turn since Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Wefn directs with a sure hand, with some stunning moments that edge close to calling attention to themselves, but serve the story. A scene near the end, in which two characters grapple to the death, is revealed only in shadow in a sunlit parking lot, and it works tremendously.
Gosling is a Hollywood stunt driver, auto mechanic and, on the side, a wheel man for robberies. He’s so mysterious we don’t even know his name. His closest friend, a mechanic played by Bryan Cranston, doesn’t know anything about him before he showed up out of the blue at his auto shop. He is beyond laconic–A.O. Scott compares him to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but he’s more like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbit, an autistic savant when it comes to cars. The opening scene shows him doing what he does best–eluding cops after a robbery, his heart rate seeming like is no faster than someone watching golf on television.
But, of course, there’s a girl, and that changes everything. He becomes sweet on his neighbor, played winsomely by Carey Mulligan. She’s got an adorable son and a husband in prison, but when hubbie gets out Gosling goes against his rules and helps the family out, and you don’t need me to tell you that things go wrong.
As one would expect with a movie called Drive there are some awesome car chases, but they don’t dominate the film. Instead the film is more about the gradual lifting of a veil from Gosling’s face. We sense that something happened to him long ago that made him what he was, as he’s not stupid (Ron Perlman, as a villain, mistakenly tells him, “You’re not very good at this, are you?” Boy, is he wrong). There’s a gripping scene after a shootout in motel, with Gosling’s face coated in blood, in which he pauses, considering his next move. It’s an impassive look, but it’s still wrought with meaning.
There is a lot of blood in this movie. I think there’s about a dozen kills, and they’re all bloody. Gosling, though stone-faced, can be surprisingly vicious (Mulligan finds out about that first-hand in an elevator). We’re also surprised by a performance by Albert Brooks as a businessman who’s not entirely on the up and up. Gosling, when introduced, is reluctant to shake hands with him, and says, “My hands are dirty.” Brooks responds, “So am I.” When Brooks later jabs a fork in someone’s eye, it’s kind of like watching Woody Allen garrote someone.
My grade for Drive: A