“I used to produce movies in the 80’s. Kind of action films, sexy stuff…one critic called them European.”
The most self-reflexive line in Nicolas Winding Refn’s post-modern genre triumph “Drive” might also be its longest. To say that the film’s protagonist, the Driver (Ryan Gosling), is a man of few words would require us to reform Calvin Coolidge as a chatty statesman. Even the film’s gabbiest characters, such as Albert Brooks’ oily kingpin, rarely stick around for long, delivering crucial information and then drifting off into the L.A. haze. Aside from the prodding, throbbing, retro-tinged score, “Drive” is possibly the quietest thriller made since “Bullitt.”
The Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich school of sound design ignores the extraordinary power of silence in building tension; for somewhere around half its running time, “Drive” is content simply to brood, Cliff Martinez’s pulsating tunes ticking away like narrative time bomb nestled somewhere at the film’s heart. We know that events will spiral out of control, but we do not know when; good Hitchcock disciples will know that we call this suspense. And when the shit does hit the fan, that fateful gunshot arrives with such a bang that you and everyone else in the theater will have no choice but to shudder. Refn understands that violence is far more effective as a climactic release than as a state of mind. You could call “Drive” Tarantino-esque, but that would ignore the fact that Tarantino’s depiction of violence has of late descended into cartoonish self-parody (the “Kill Bill” films, “Grindhouse”), and Refn’s film reaches for a level of stark brutality that does very little to glamorize its hero’s actions.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t glamorize him in about fifty other ways. Anonymous but impeccably dressed, the Driver struts through the film with the kind of confidence usually reserved for…well, Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”…and that’s pretty much the list. This is a man whose idea of small talk is offering a toothpick. This is a man who, finding out that his neighbor’s husband is in prison, simply responds with a half-curious “Oh.” This is a man who pauses in an elevator to kiss his beautiful companion before smashing in the face of the assassin standing right next to them.
The latter sequence, destined to become “Drive’s” most infamous scene, presents the entire film in a sleek, thematic nutshell much as the opening quote summarizes Refn’s stylistic sensibilities. As any good noir protagonist must, the Driver struggles with the opposing impulses of his nature: on the one hand, he finds comfort and security in his steady job as a mechanic, his burgeoning relationship with the cute single mother next door (Carey Mulligan) and the general trappings of normalcy. But then there is the thrill and arousal of driving, an urge toward danger and violence that the Driver satisfies by occasionally doing stunt work for movies and, more importantly, moonlighting as an unstoppable getaway driver for various lowlifes. The Driver expends a good deal of energy to keep these dual lives entirely separate, but as he gets further involved with the next-door neighbor’s husband (Oscar Isaac), the opposing sides begin to hurtle towards each other with alarming force. In the Elevator Scene, the Driver temporarily loses the division altogether, and like Mulligan we are simultaneously repulsed and yet still attracted to this torrid enigma: what drives this man? (HA that’s the like the name of the movie)
But before long we are gliding down the steely streets of Los Angeles again, lost in Refn’s woozy vision of the city. It’s been a while (perhaps since Tarantino) since we’ve seen a young new filmmaker with such brazen confidence in his images. “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” gave us audacious bursts of originality, but “Drive” is by far Refn’s most refined work to date, drawing on past masters to create a more unified marriage of visuals and theme. Here’s a splattering of Martin Scorsese and “Taxi Driver” to suggest urban menace; a dash of Peckinpah for the fetishizing of violence; and a heavy dose of Michael Mann’s neo-noirs for that peculiarly West Coast brand of existential malaise. And yet it all ends up feeling quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
You can chalk part of that feeling up to Refn’s eclectic ensemble: Ron Perlman is in comfortable scenery-chewing territory as a hot-tempered gangster, but Albert Brooks as his partner? That was an inspired stroke of against-type casting, and Brooks kills it, exuding a shark-like menace that is at first inexplicable, considering the former comedian’s pudgy, unremarkable exterior, but quickly becomes horribly, terrifyingly explicable as the mobster shows his true colors. Bryan Cranston, meanwhile, brings a dash of Bryan Cranston to the role of the Driver’s simpering mechanic boss, and Christina Hendricks’ breasts (*cough* I mean, Christina Hendricks) does a lot with ten minutes of screen time. Mulligan is not exactly out of her element as the girl next door; she’s got one of those smiles that makes you understand why the Driver wants to be a better man.
But if there was any justice in the world, this is the role that will catapult Ryan Gosling to super-stardom. I’ve discussed his acting talent at length on this blog before, so the surprise here isn’t so much how good he is in “Drive,” but how cool he is. The Driver is the kind of iconic character that will inspire knockoff Halloween costumes for decades. Gosling strides through the film with the lithe, unhurried movements of a star who lets the action come to him. Vin Diesel, he ain’t.
An action film? It won’t disappoint the Ritalin crowd. Sexy? Refn’s color scheme alone is positively orgasmic (one brief scene set in a supermarket might make even Danny Boyle cringe). European? You certainly don’t usually find this kind of thing coming out of Hollywood. And Refn recognizes the irony there, since Hollywood DID churn out the grungy B-movie fare that “Drive” worships. By mixing that distinctly European instinct of nostalgia for gritty genre fare with a sense of frenzied visual propulsion that is entirely his own, Refn has sealed his place as one of the most fascinating contemporary filmmakers. And I can’t wait until the fuddy-duddys in the Academy prove it by snubbing him.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars