From the first beat of its pulsing electronic score, the first titles, emblazoned in hot pink script, the first images of Los Angeles in the night, Drive grabs you by the collar and shakes you up. It holds you there, grip unrelenting, for the next hour and forty minutes until it lets go and you get to breathe easy again. Drive is a hell of a film that is truly visceral and at times, exhausting.
Ryan Gosling plays a mysterious unnamed driver who’s skills behind the wheel are near superhuman. He drives for movie stunts by day and moonlights as a getaway driver for anyone, inside a five minute window. Any time outside those five minutes he belongs to no one but himself. That is until he becomes enamored with his arrestingly beautiful and a times angelic neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). With this love and these people giving him true purpose for the first time in his life he goes to great lengths to ensure their safety, endangering himself in the process.
Drive behaves not as you’d expect. By its title and billing it should be a high octane chase filled action movie. It is not. Drive is quiet, slow, and contemplative. Despite this Drive is never boring. Every frame feels ill at ease as the film builds a sense of foreboding doom. The tension is constant to the point where one feels a bit weary by the end. There are a few chase scenes and they are superbly executed. There’s plenty of violence too. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has a taste for the gory. Fortunately he lets it be just suggestive enough to never feel gratuitous, but brutal enough to still pack a punch. It still shocks and is definitely disturbing, but it is not the gore that is the focus, it is why it is necessary that Refn is interested in. And that, thankfully, makes all the difference.
Gosling delivers a mesmerizing performance. Speaking with just flits of his eyes or the tightening of his gloved hand about the wheel, Gosling gives the taciturn Driver a feel like a coiled spring. You’re never quite sure what he’ll do next, but you’re confident he can manage it. Despite this intensity, Gosling imbues Driver with an earnest innocence. His love for Irene and Benicio is pure, true, and strikingly believable. Once he goes into action to protect them, you can understand why he feels it is necessary.
Albert Brooks plays morose gangster, Bernie Rose, with Daniel Day-Lewis level conviction. He goes through the film with this grim look of guilt and pain as he slowly develops into Driver’s nemesis. A strange dichotomy in a brutal villain, but it adds to the complexity in a believable way, ensuring that he’s not just another bad guy.
Drive is slick and stylish to an incredible degree. Refn and company’s camera work is precise, thoughtful, and simply gorgeous. Each scene is exceedingly well designed, showing absolutely what is needed and highlighting the characters above all. Never in it for just the spectacle, Refn smartly fills the frame with his beautiful actors, and lets their performances drawn you in. The use of slow motion adds an elegiac beauty to it all.
The only gripe I can level against Drive is: what does it amount to? There’s no real message, no life affirming declaration, no greek chorus. But maybe that’s it’s greatest strength. Like the Driver himself, or Shane (a clear influence), the film strides into the cinema and shows moviegoers what they should be demanding of their action films before fading into legend.
Drive is exceptional on all levels of craft and isn’t just a technical achievement but an emotional one as well, it operates on the principle of characters first and delivers a first rate story that is equal parts exciting and cathartic.