Welcome to “Drive,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s exercise in the tried and true lesson that less is more, and more when it follows less is pulse-pounding mayhem. Maybe somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of “Drive” could be considered “action” or “violence,” but Refn makes every second of it count. When each slowly mounting scene finally explodes, the rush of adrenaline is so startling that you will either gasp or laugh from shock. “Drive” offers nothing the “stoic hero takes revenge” plot hasn’t seen before, but you’ve never seen it done in this seemingly counterintuitive but amazingly effective fashion.
“Drive” stars Ryan Gosling as our nameless “Driver,” a mechanic and stunt driver by day, stone-cold wheelman by night. Gosling hardly does a scene without a toothpick in his mouth or his scorpion-emblazoned driving jacket. And when the driving gloves come on — you can forget about it. His calm demeanor says everything not written into Hossein Amini’s script and from the get-go, this protagonist has earned legions of faithful viewers.
Gosling packs a lot of his signature suave from previous roles into the driver, that suave that would have anyone convinced he’s a blue-blooded New Yorker and not a Canuck from Ontario. Anyway, the driver develops a little crush on his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who happens to have a son and a husband in jail. Instead of sweet-talking his way in, he just gazes at her with that little smirk on his face — courtship complete. Men would kill for that move, women are killed by it and Gosling is one of the few who can pull it off convincingly.
After the driver grows found of Irene and her boy, the husband (Oscar Isaac) comes back. Not only does his return bust up their relationship, but also the husband owes money for protection in prison and if he can’t pay, it could lead to his wife and son getting hurt. From what we know about our driver, that’s tickles the one moral fiber in his body the wrong way. He agrees to help the husband rob a pawn shop by acting as the getaway, but when the job goes horribly wrong, he finds himself in a situation no one could drive away from.
It takes awhile for “Drive” to get rolling, but that appears to be Refn’s style: tantalize the audience with brilliant camera angles, an unpredictable score and churn the suspense to a tar-thick consistency. This approach will undoubtedly scare off some moviegoers yet completely awe others, but from a filmmaking perspective the artistry of the shots and takes puts Refn easily into a category of elite directors. Only a director with an undeniable gift could linger on literally half his shots and draw out nearly every scene without driving the viewer completely insane (that pun wasn’t intended, yet quite fitting). “Drive” feels tedious at times anyway, so it would be painful to imagine such an interpretation of “Drive” in lesser hands.
Due to this choice, the film suffers at points for lack of dialogue, but perhaps that’s years of conventional filmmaking built up inside me. The instinct becomes particularly hard to ignore in those scenes of longing gazes between the driver and Irene when the script that ought to be runs through your head over the silence in the film. Fortunately, the love story plays second fiddle to the ever-spiraling degree of danger.
Considering the aforementioned percentage of action and violence in the film, what little there is feels somewhere between excruciating, satisfying and terrifying all at once. The driver’s iced veins through some jarring brutality seem unexplained, but the void in his back story rather than hindering his character allows us to draw any number of wild conclusions about what he’s been through. The same goes for most of the other characters. Bryan Cranston’s character and especially Albert Brooks’ carry themselves in similar fashion. In one scene, Refn even commands the half-naked strippers to stay completely still and silent as the driver holds a bullet over a guys forehead with one hand and a hammer with the other. Realistic response from strippers? Hardly — but effective.
Effectiveness would have to be the card “Drive” plays best. Say what you will of character motivation, romantic subplots and the the fact that much of the second act rests completely on an improbable coincidence, but Refn’s film cuts hard and fast to the core; it makes you pay attention and then forces you swallow, just as any veritable tour de force ought to. Long term, count Gosling and Refn as two such forces.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossein Amini, James Sallis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks