Drive is a gripping action movie by way of atmosphere and build-up. There’s no mistaking it for the genre, though it doesn’t conform to the modern approach of set pieces of spectacle. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of action movie you’d expect Ryan Gosling to be in.
The Driver (Gosling) is a Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver. He has a strict code, a five-minute window and dreams of commanding a race car. Driver actually connects with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, but before a romance can even bloom, her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of jail. Driver actually takes a bad job to help Standard pay off his prison debts. It’s always the emotional decisions that ruin professionals’ perfect systems, but now we get to see Driver take out the garbage in a refreshing style.
Nicolas Winding Refn directs Drive like his previous Valhalla Rising. Lots of quiet, slow motion, keeping the film purely visual. His sweeping shots of downtown L.A. make it look beautiful. Let me tell you, downtown L.A. is hardly ever relevant, let alone beautiful.
It may be ‘70s-esque in that it’s about an hour of buildup (after an introductory car chase and a Hollywood stunt), establishing a tough and dangerous atmosphere. It’s not retro though. It’s a style all Refn’s own. The tilt of a head or the crunch of a leather glove are important beats in otherwise still scenes. A takedown in a strip club is so intense, you will not even be gawking at the nude dancers because Gosling’s presence is so commanding.
The sound defines a lot of the action. The bumps of fenders colliding, ticks on the soundtrack, the hum of motors and the violent impacts say more than the picture does. Although, the characters do make sure their victims are really dead, so there are no surprise pop ups. Even Albert Brooks is a hardcore badass, playing moneyman Bernie Rose.
Every kill has an interesting approach. Some kills happen desperately, some with intense anger, one even with a gentlemanly sense of sympathy. Not so sympathetic that they won’t kill each other, but at least no hard feelings, it just has to be this way. The nature of this violence seems to imply that you can end a life just like that if you’re inclined to, no hesitation. There’s a worldview for a film to champion!
The love story may be the most familiar element of the plot. Killers and thieves in movies always seem to change their heart for children, although it’s pretty selfless for Driver to risk his livelihood just so someone else’s family can get back on track. Mainly the reason it works is they don’t spend a lot of dialogue talking about it. Mulligan and Gosling just play it and the film trusts them to do so.
Drive will surely be one of those movies I watch every now and then. It won’t be for any memorable sequence but rather the overall tone. When you want to see guys take care of business and get right to the point, watch Drive.