Drive is one of those movies that people who see too many movies will want to see too many times, and they may have trouble explaining why. Story-wise, it’s nothing special. Based on a novel by James Sallis, the plot is L.A. Noir 101: A mechanic who moonlights as a Hollywood stunt driver and criminals’ wheelman (Ryan Gosling) seeks a measure of redemption in the love of a good woman (Carey Mulligan) and gets caught in a bad heist.
From the beginning of the film, what matters isn’t what happens, but what Nicolas Winding Refn does with it. This is the Danish director who made the fact-based story of Britain’s most violent prisoner, into Bronson, a movie that resembles jaunty music-hall comedy. Refn has a sick sense of humor, a brilliant visual instinct and a sincere-seeming love for the pulsing neon romanticism of ’80s movies.
Most importantly, he’s not trying to rip off Reservoir Dogs. While Drive is far from an action-packed heist flick — ignore the misleading TV spots — it’s no verbose style fest, either. It’s built on clever, tension-building shifts of tone and rhythm; on moments of transcendent beauty that slide abruptly into bloody mayhem, and silences broken by jarring noise.
That’s clear from the first scene, where we watch Gosling’s unnamed Driver ply the criminal side of his trade. Extracting a pair of thieves from the scene of their crime, he operates swiftly and on the clock, sneaking through alleys or even tailing a cop car rather than engaging in a suicidal high-speed chase. Instead of the exhilaration of going for broke, Fast and Furious style, Refn gives us the pleasure of watching a professional beat the odds with patience and skill.
And what an odd professional he is. Gosling is one of those actors who uses his standard arsenal of expressions to radically different purposes from role to role. That half-smirk he often sports, for instance, can come across as dim-witted, Draco Malfoy smug, sweetly sincere or downright sinister. Here, it’s a bit of the last two. Like the hero of a classic western, the Driver is a man of few words and generally decent motives, but his stalwart blankness can set viewers on edge. That scary aspect comes to the fore when his attempts to do right by Mulligan’s winsome single-mom character — who turns out not to be as single as she seems — go very wrong.
The central romance is more a function of actor chemistry, lighting and a great soundtrack than of plausible character development. (It’s no wonder that Refn has called the movie “John Hughes with head smashing.”) But it works. Refn surrounds Gosling and Mulligan with veteran character players — Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman — who play familiar lowlife and mobster archetypes, but with pungent gusto.
There’s not a whole lot new in Drive, and some of its best moments recall other movies. But, despite its extreme-violence quotient (of which potential viewers should be aware), it doesn’t feel like a fanboy’s souped-up montage of his favorite badass moments in the action genre. It has its own rules, rhythms and integrity, and it’s not too cool to use a girlie font in the opening credits, or to let us feel the hero’s nerves as he audibly adjusts his leather driving gloves.
Like the electronica songs on its soundtrack, Drive is a shot of pure aesthetic pleasure, a triumph of style over substance and a demonstration that fun at the movies means more than wall-to-wall action. After a summer that offered little else, it’s exciting to find a director who knows how to take us for a real ride — even if we go nowhere fast.