Drive begins extremely well and ends in a muddle of ultra-violence, hypocrisy and stylistic preening, which won’t be any sort of deterrent for those who like its looks.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s avenging-angel thriller premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Refn won the directing prize, and every supersaturated image is designed for hushed adoration. If the movie were a movie star, it’d be looking just past you to see if someone cooler had recently come in.
Ryan Gosling plays Driver, a tight-lipped loner who puts the stench in “existential” and has nothing in his blinkered life outside his gig as stunt driver for the movies; his job at an auto repair garage run by his pal played by Bryan Cranston; and his illegal work as a getaway driver for criminals.
The story’s L.A. setting locates Drive in the category of sunshine-SoCal noir, half-blue skies and shiny surfaces, the other half nocturnal villainy.
The superb Carey Mulligan plays Irene, a Denny’s waitress who lives down the hall from Driver in their MacArthur Park-area apartment complex, which is decorated like Dorothy Vallens’ place in Blue Velvet. Irene’s lowlife husband (Oscar Isaac) is due out of prison soon; prior to his release, Irene and their young son become friends with Driver, who takes them for, yes, drives along the concrete basin of the L.A. River. How this glamorous cipher in the scorpion jacket becomes part of a troubled family unit, and how he becomes the target of loutish mobsters played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, form the crisscrossing roads of the narrative.
It’s compelling for a good while. The pre-credit sequence—the first robbery and getaway we see in Drive—is one of the more gripping openings of the year. Refn’s tendency to turn every close-up into fashion photography is held in check. Driver is like the poseur nephew of the Lee Marvin character from Point Blank; his is a world of shadows and solitary figures trapped in severely art-directed spaces. None of the behavior or dialogue in Drive consciously evokes human speech, or planet Earth; we’re in movieland. For a while Refn’s noir tropes are seductive, even though the story—Driver stepping up as psycho-Shane protector of the waitress and her son and transforming into a blood-spattered revenge machine—is the same old story, albeit with supercool lighting and fastidious postproduction color correction.
I especially like Mulligan, one of the great listeners and empathetic interpreters in contemporary film, and Brooks, whose sleazy character’s backslapping nature (the gangster used to be a movie producer) masks a bloodthirstiness, at least until the blood starts flying. Before long, and then with grinding relish, Drive becomes one garishly sadistic set piece after another. Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini, adapting the novella by James Sallis, don’t have the interest or the guts to examine Driver from the inside, if there is one. The sanctimonious ’80s-sounding pap on the soundtrack keeps singing about heroes and the little guy. When an unlucky accomplice gets her head blasted by a shotgun, the imagery politely points your attention to how the blood on the wallpaper contrasts with the green of the palm tree outside, against the blue sky. Refn has a compositional eye and considerable craft, as was clear in the earlier Bronson. He’s also a bit of an airhead when it comes to the moral implications of the brutality he portrays.