Perfectly timed to transition us gently from the silly popcorn movies of summer to the austere Oscar bait of winter, Drive is an art house crime drama that works both as a commentary on the genre and as a lean, stylish thriller in its own right. Beautifully directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson), with a fascinatingly impenetrable performance by Ryan Gosling at its center, Drive has the feel of a dark fairy tale, a minimalist fable so simple that it achieves the romance and ambiguity of myth.
Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for heists. A tense, bravura sequence that opens the film shows him putting his skills to work, driving two masked criminals away from a late night robbery. We don't learn who the men are, or what they stole, or what happened in the warehouse while the getaway car waited outside: none of that matters to the Driver. Taciturn to the point of being almost entirely non-verbal, his stoic professionalism is evident in every efficient move he makes, from the way he smoothly pops open the back door for his passengers, to the way he monitors a police band radio while simultaneously listening to the Clippers game.
The police chase that follows thwarts our expectations and tells us both what kind of movie this is, and what kind of movie it is not: there are only a few moments of high-speed pursuit, and no flaming car crashes or improbable jumps. The Driver eludes his pursuers by being calm and clever, silently threading through back alleys, slipping his car in to hide behind parked trucks, and—at one point—sliding unobtrusively into traffic to cruise slowly behind the very police car that's looking for him.
Gosling's character affects the quiet air and ethics of a high-price hitman, but we sense it is an affectation: from his little rituals (strapping a watch to his steering wheel, chewing a toothpick) to his never-changing costume (driving gloves and a Scorpion-embroidered windbreaker), we are subtly signaled that this is a character who has consciously invented himself: he's a kid who has seen too many movies, and has created a stripped-down, high-tension life that lets him live in one. The film credits him only as The Driver, for this idealized identity is now his only identity. (Refn's camera repeatedly catches the Driver's eyes in the rearview mirror, and it's clear that Gosling's character is not checking out his environment, but himself, reaffirming his carefully-constructed identity in the reflection.)
Far from actually being a high-priced professional, the Driver—when he's not flipping cars for movies—works in a garage run by a washed-up grease-monkey named Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon wants to turn the kid into a stock-car driver, and is making a deal with two mobsters, Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), to finance the car. Meanwhile, the Driver is living in a run-down apartment building, where he develops a sweet, almost wordless romance with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a waitress with a five-year old son (Kaden Leos) and a husband in prison. Mulligan's lost, innocent character is clearly drawn to the quiet, lonely strength of Gosling's knight-errant, and he in turn finds in her a maiden to protect. But when Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of jail, owing the mob one last job, protecting the maiden means getting involved in one of those classic heists-gone-wrong, an ever-spiraling disaster of poor decisions that will be familiar to aficionados of Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and other pulp-fiction masters.
If all of this sounds like a terrible cliché, I suspect that's the point: these are L.A. characters living an L.A. life, playing out their stories against a backdrop so infused with Hollywood tropes that normal people shape their lives to imitate the legends. It is easy to imagine a truly horrible movie being made from this story by lesser artists, but Refn and Gosling—working from a smartly minimalistic script by Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove)—take a wise step back from the material and make a film that is both an homage to the genre and an undermining of its traditions. Drive respectfully evokes the romance of its genre fiction roots, while making us realize that these very romantic notions are an illusion that lead the characters down darker and darker paths.
Drive is Gosling's picture—it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the Driver, because it's hard to imagine that any other actor would dare to bring such restraint to the part. The Driver is a self-conscious Man Without a Name, one constructed by a nearly sociopathic non-entity who has invented this persona for himself: he is a creation of pure vanity disguised as lack of vanity. The Driver will inevitably be compared to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but it's a quieter, less histrionic role than DeNiro's unhinged outsider: Gosling never lets the mask slip, yet somehow just hints at the lost and troubled person who might have existed, once, before the Driver put on his Scorpion jacket. It's an extraordinary performance.
But nearly stealing the movie is Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, and when award season is over I won't be surprised if it's Brooks who ends with a nomination or two. There has always been a dark undercurrent to his performances, but here Brooks is a revelation, embodying for the first time a character who is charmingly, humorously terrifying. His Bernie Rose is unforgettable: dangerously evil, but practically so, and never without regret. Rose seems to like people, and would just as soon get along with everyone—right up until the moment when necessity requires him to shove a fork in an underling's eye. "OK, it's all over," he says comfortingly, a split-second after slicing a friend's artery open: he's just murdered the man, but he speaks in the reassuring tones of a doctor who has just given a child an injection.
I'm finding Drive to be a hard movie to write about, because so many of the things I want to say about it sound like criticisms when I actually intend them as praise. The characters, for example, are nearly cyphers: Gosling's Driver is a total mystery, of course, but we learn little more about the inner life of Carey Mulligan's beautiful waif: while Mulligan brings a necessary and touching humanity to her role, we mostly see Irene through Driver's eyes, as an ideal, not a character. Their love story plays out not in revealing dialogue but in longing glances and stylized montages, accompanied by a fantastic, retro soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. In a recent interview with The A.V. Club, Gosling compared Drive to "a violent John Hughes movie," and there is definitely an air of doomed teenage romanticism and pop-music obsession here, where love is not something that grows but something that happens—always uncontrollably, often with the wrong person, and usually resulting in your world turning upside down.
What makes Drive fascinating is that it carefully, brilliantly straddles both the light and dark ends of that spectrum. At its happiest, Drive evokes the magical trance of driving through the city with the windows open, the object of your affection at your side, with the perfect song playing on the radio. At its darkest, the movie slaps us with violence to shake us out of our romantic dreams and force us to recognize them for the movie- and music-sustained illusions that they are. For—make no mistake—the movie takes sudden, stunning turns into violence. In The Driver, Gosling presents us with a "hero" so addicted to his romantic ideals that he doesn't know when to stop. I won't spoil it, but one of the highlights of the film is a scene in an elevator that deftly progresses from sweet, to heroic, to horrifying, as the entire knight-saves-maiden scenario Mulligan and Gosling's characters have been cooking moves from romantic fantasy to harsh reality. We might long for the romantic, obsessed movie hero, the film seems to say, but here is what he would actually look like.
Drive is a film of wonderful contradictions: it's a thriller with a gentle, contemplative pace; an action movie that finds time for remarkable stillness and beauty; and a literary film that doesn't need words to convey its emotions. Mostly, it's a stylized fantasy that serves up seedy reality, and a fairy-tale romance that takes a hammer to our romantic ideals. At times Drive feels like a longer version of an '80s rock video, one of those wordless short stories about doomed love that plays out against the synthetic beats of a pop ballad. I didn't think I'd ever find myself using such a description as a recommendation, but Drive evokes the same primal emotions as those cheesy romantic anthems, while simultaneously exploring and challenging their power to move us.
Refn took home the best director prize at Cannes with Drive, and it's easy to see why: this is the perfect fusion of style and substance, and all of its elements—from the cinematography to the music to the remarkable performances—work seamlessly and magically together to achieve a singular and original vision. It is hard to tell a simple story that feels so hauntingly ambiguous, or to make an intellectual movie that paints entirely with the palette of emotion, but Refn has done all this and more with this dark, stylish, self-aware fable.