Thursday, October 20, 2011
In one of his deceptively haimish digressions, businessman/gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) tells the unnamed star of Drive (Ryan Gosling) about the movies he used to produce. “One critic called them European,” Rose says. “I thought they were shit.”
That’s a neat little in-joke, since director Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish critics’ darling (Drive won him the best director prize at Cannes this year). Refn specializes in highly stylized, pulse-pounding arthouse films about hard guys in no-win situations who see extreme violence as their only way out—or, in the case of the title character in Bronson, their sole means of expression. But that line is the only hint of irony I detected in Drive. This movie-movie appears to be dead serious about resurrecting the hard-guy American vigilante films that flourished in the last half of the last century, and updating the tradition with a Refn-sized dose of grossly graphic violence.
Gosling’s driver works in a garage during the day and moonlights as a getaway driver for professional thieves. (He also has another part-time job, but I won’t ruin the surprise by telling you what that is, since it’s revealed in a tasty little bit of misdirection.) Like the taciturn tough guys played by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in their prime (Bullitt was Refn’s main model for Drive), he communicates almost entirely through action, his Zen-like default mode of quiet watchfulness punctuated by brief but bloody rampages.
Even his courtship with the girl next door, Irene (Carey Mulligan), consists almost entirely of doing things together without speaking. Gosling is convincing enough as a lover to sell his half of their wordless montages, with the help of Mulligan’s melting eyes. But the expressionless stare he adopts to play tough and the slow-blooming smile he reveals one or two times too many read to me as damaged sensitivity in retreat, not smoldering anger or coiled intensity or whatever they’re meant to imply.
But not even not quite buying Gosling as a ninja-style master of evasion and hand-to-hand combat spoiled the movie for me, since there’s so much else to enjoy. Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks do a lot with a little in underwritten roles, and Kaden Leos is charming as Irene’s son. And Brooks makes an excellent villain, kvetching and kvelling like somebody’s loveable grandpa while plotting nefarious stuff. Just watching him kill a man with a fork is pretty much worth the price of admission. As A.O. Scott put it, “In his self-authored comic roles, Mr. Brooks often exudes a passive-aggressive hostility, a latent capacity for violence held in check by neurosis and cowardice. He lets you assume the same in Drive until the moment he stabs someone in the eye with a fork. It’s a shocking and oddly glorious moment — something a lot of us, without quite knowing it or being able to explain just why, have been waiting 30 years to see.”
Drive is generally a little light on that kind of texture or emotional resonance, but from the terrific opening scene, it’s very good at transmitting information efficiently and maintaining tension and suspense. That first scene culminates in a cat-and-mouse car chase, which our guy wins as much by knowing when and where to stop as he does by being driving fast and furiously. He never speaks a word in that sequence either, but by the time it’s over we know just how smart he is and how cool he stays under pressure.
Then there’s the style Refn soaks the script in. Some is pure noir, like the rays of light that occasionally slice through darkness to create vivid black-and-white patterns, the faces half-drowned in shadow, and the chocolate-brown night-time scenes and deserted back streets that show LA as anything but a sunny paradise. Other choices—the romantically morose, synth-heavy pop music pounding away in the background; the slow, stately pans and slow motion that turn violent crescendos operatic; the fondness for overhead shots—evoke the work of Michael Mann.
That’s an awfully high bar to try to reach, and Drive doesn’t hit it, since Hossein Amini’s self-consciously stripped-down script lacks the emotional depth that makes Mann’s best antihero tragedies so great. But if you’re looking to get lost for a couple hours in a smartly plotted, beautifully acted popcorn movie, Drive can take you there, and that’s no small accomplishment.
Written for TimeOff