starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac
written by: Hossein Amini
directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
MPAA: Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.
In the stylish LA nocture Drive, Ryan Gosling stars as an unnamed stunt car driver who picks up spare cash working as a getaway driver-for-hire. He has very strict guidelines for his (lack of) involvement with his criminal clients, and so far they’ve served him well. From what we can see, he’s very good at what he does. Or maybe we’re just blinded by how good he looks doing it. Anyway.
Things start to go awry when his affable mentor, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), starts getting mixed up with the mob, in the form of Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman, failing as always to resemble a recognizably human male). Gosling himself also runs afoul of the mob when he gets mixed up in an ill-planned heist to help Standard (Oscar Isaac), the ex-con husband of Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother with whom Gosling has formed a sweetly illicit romantic connection.
While the marketing would have you believe that Drive is just a more GQ version of The Fast and The Furious, this is hardly the case. Directed by the Denmark-born Nicolas Winding Refn (who won Best Director at Cannes for this film) and adapted from the James Sallis novel by Hossein Amini (who’s previously adapted such literary efforts as Jude and The Wings of the Dove), this is an artful and contemplative film noir, light on dialogue, with long stretches of silence periodically interrupted by increasingly extreme outbursts of violence.
It follows a fairly straightforward noir story arc: a loner antihero with criminal associations falls for the wrong girl, compromises his lone-wolf principles, signs up for one of those perennially ill-fated “one last job” situations, and gets in way over his head. But what sets Drive apart is the impeccable direction of Refn, who previously directed the critical favorite Bronson. He sets the tone of the film immediately from the opening sequence, with its hot-pink cursive titles and neo-’80s synthy score (courtesy of Cliff Martinez, really killing it right now between this and Contagion). It has throwback style to spare, occasionally evoking a chillier version of David Lynch’s Wild At Heart.
Ryan Gosling is well-cast as the unnamed driver. He is uncommonly gifted at communicating mood and emotion without saying a word, and his famously penetrating gaze could melt an iceberg. For a part that mostly requires him to brood silently in skintight jeans, he is perfect. He also gets to work in some deadpan humor, as well as several ovary-detonating “Hey girl”-style moments playing with Irene’s adorable son. Mulligan, all poise and dimples, is perhaps a bit miscast as a working-poor LA mother who got knocked up by a Mexican gangster at 17, but the part doesn’t require much from her other than having cute chemistry with Gosling, which she does.
Cranston, Perlman, and Brooks serve up the character-actor goods as the film’s colorful trio of middle-aged ne’er-do-wells. Brooks is particularly surprising. Who knew that he could be scary? Like, genuinely menacing. He kills two people! With blades! There is also a memorable appearance by Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks as Blanche, a mob moll of sorts who is sent to assist with the film’s centerpiece heist. She is the closest thing this noir has to a femme fatale, and it’s a hoot to see her playing such a trashy bitch. Her role in the film is brief, so enjoy her while she’s onscreen.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive takes the already-cool genre of film noir and turns it down even cooler with a generous helping of stylized Scandinavian detachment. He lulls the audience into such a state of elegant aesthetic hypnosis that we barely register the escalating levels of ludicrously over-the-top violence (and believe me, it gets pretty insane). It is a thrilling and unusual screen experience.