Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s thrill ride, Drive, is designed to flood its viewers with a surge of emotions—a daring rip current, pulsating in ears and pounding in chests. Ryan Gosling’s unnamed lead character, a part-time Hollywood stunt driver, part-time mechanic, is chock full of sideward glances and sly innuendos as he moonlights as a getaway driver for hire whose heart strings are tugged by a fair-skinned single mother, Irene (Carey Mulligan).
Dialogue takes a back seat in Refn’s film, based on James Sallis’ pulp novel of the same name, defying many stereotypical Hollywood rules, exploiting instead the unnerving sound of ticking wristwatches, campy pop music, and heart-thumping bass, and utilizing Gosling’s enigmatic stares and powerful, hard looks as communication and audience insight into the slow revelation of his dark persona.
Cannes-winning director Refn’s previous filmmography (Valhalla Rising, Bronson) showcases his fantastic use of color and over-the-top-to-the-point-of-comical gruesomeness. “Those three films,” he says, “are transformations; the same theme. Bronson ends with a man in a cage and Valhalla starts with a man in a cage. Drive ends with a man as a superhero, he becomes his own mythology, so there are certain similarities between those three characters. I am always drawn to the antihero by nature.” The standard antihero no longer, Refn nixes his common character base to deliver an, at first glance, sensitive male—cool, calm and collected, chomping aimlessly on a toothpick with an unfurrowed brow and silent as Steve McQueen. In his first big Hollywood film, Refn crafts a meticulously edited, Los Angeles explored, action noir with sharp colors, exhilarating chase scenes, and Tarantino-esque bloodbaths. The pink titles and subtleties create a soft vibe during the opening sequence, calming nerves after the high-stakes first scene and preparing viewers for the short-lived sensitivity of Gosling’s Driver.
Carey Mulligan’s Irene is a street savvy mother with sad eyes, patiently waiting for her husband, Standard, to be released from jail. Her neighbor, Driver, can’t stop himself from falling for her and her son, Benicio, finding that he fits in nicely to the role of the strong male figure in their short-lived family dynamic. A quiet and heart-warming story fills a large chunk of the film’s first half until Standard (Oscar Isaac) is unexpectedly released from jail, spinning the aforementioned escalating relationship into a 180 and leaving behind tire tracks of feelings and a whole lot of tension.
Driver’s new loyalty to the family remains, tossing him into a mix of trouble after discovering ex-con Standard beaten and bloodied in a parking lot. Offering his talent and expertise, “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down, I don’t carry a gun, I drive,” in an attempt to get Standard out of the mess his accumulated prison debt has gotten him into with B-list movie producer and mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Driver waits outside a pawn shop in a growling Mustang with money-toting Blanche (Christina Hendricks), preparing to whisk all off to safety. To his dismay he instead witnesses a heist gone terribly awry. From here on out Driver trembles with rage, becoming a terrifying version of his original self on a thirsty hunt for revenge, further proving the immense range Gosling posseses as an actor.
Drive offers a number of remarkable performances. Despite minimal dialogue and a scene count you can tally on one hand, Christina Hendricks is engaging, justly earning her own movie poster. Bryan Cranston (Shannon), who never ceases to impress, took his less than supporting role and molded it into something notable.
Drive stands out as one of the best films to have been released thus far this year. Will you leave the theater happy? Sad? Appalled? Inspired? Yes. All of the above.