(by Dustin Putman
Now this is more like it. In a year that has seen the release of several strong, even great, films, but hardly any that have had the power to knock one's socks off, "Drive" is like a godsend from the cinematic heavens—an air-tight, stripped-down, heart-rending, blood-drenched, anxiety-fueled godsend, but a godsend all the same. Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for "Drive," and it's obvious why. His masterful precision over this material, from a screenplay by Hossein Amini (2002's "The Four Feathers"), based on the novel by James Sallis, is like a stab straight through the jugular. If there is any justice, it will simultaneously serve to invigorate other filmmakers to up their game in a big way and to show them—and perhaps Hollywood at large—how the sheer craft of motion pictures can work both as towering high art and rapturous, lump-in-your-throat entertainment. Article continues below
With his mesmerizing turns in 2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love." and 2010's "Blue Valentine," Ryan Gosling has been having a moment. Now, with "Drive," he has reached a new lofty plateau in his career reserved for the very best actors of his or any generation. Deserving to do for him what 1976's "Taxi Driver" did for Robert De Niro, this auspicious new classic doesn't fall strictly into any one genre, but works like gangbusters as all of them. A constantly unpredictable crime thriller; an edgily tense, aesthetically superb action movie; a cutthroat, uncompromising revenge pic; a sad, lyrical love story—"Drive" aces through each one while making it look like the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. The film is at once unmercifully violent, methodically straightforward, sumptuously layered, and dramatically rich, pulp fiction cranked up to eleven and injected with a welcome new depth and legitimacy. It's sure to thrill the mainstream, but cinephiles will be the ones walking away most wowed by everything else it also has to offer.
A man with no name besides Driver, Gosling's protagonist is cool, quiet and devoted to all that he does, and all that he believes in. A mechanic and part-time stunt driver for the movies, he picks up extra cash on the side as a wingman who spirits away thieves following their criminal activity. Wearing leather gloves and a white satin racing jacket with a gold scorpion emblazoned on the back, Driver knows the streets of Los Angeles about as well as he handles his automobiles. He may be secretly involved in illegal getaways, but his fast and hard rule is that he never has to carry a gun or handle the stolen items. Indeed, he stays put right in the driver's seat and doesn't get out until he's safely outsmarted the usually in-pursuit cops. It's his unspoken love for neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her seven-year-old son Benicio (Kaden Leos) that leads him to ultimately agree to help out the boy's father, Standard (Oscar Isaac), in the robbery of a pawn shop. Standard has just been released from prison and wants nothing more than to walk on the straight and narrow. He owes money to some ruthless kingpins, though, and they aren't about to let him or his family walk away with their lives without paying up.
What happens next is as riveting as it is shocking, and giving away any more of the expertly woven narrative would be a crime in and of itself. Let it simply be said that things are about to get much, much worse before they get better as Driver is yanked into a labyrinthine netherworld of dirty dealings and murderous intent. Pushed to the brink and beyond what he thought he could ever possibly be capable of, Driver must risk his own life and sever his ethical conscience as a means of ensuring Irene and Benicio have a chance at a future. He does it because he cares for them, and because he doesn't really have anybody else. His actions are selfless, but they come at a tall price, demanding the line be blurred between good and bad, right and wrong. After it's all over, will he be able to look at himself in the mirror again?
"Drive" opens during one of Driver's extracurricular jobs. Staying calm and collected, he weaves his way through the streets of the city, evading police cars and searchlights from swooping overhead helicopters like it's as sure and easy as picking up milk at the grocery store. Driver doesn't need to break a sweat or step on the gas—and neither does the film—for director Nicolas Winding Refn to mount one of the most sleek, tense, unpretentious action scenes in many a moon. It's a spectacular start, and it only gets better as the spare, beautiful script teases its audience in the best way, averting expectations over and over. Our hero's feelings for Irene and Benicio are pure and respectful—he is aware that she is married, and when Standard comes home from his stint in jail even he befriends this new helping hand in his family's lives—and yet as the stakes grow and the mercury shoots clear out the top of its romantic thermometer, so, too, does his urge to protect them. He's solid and reliable and dangerous, and Ryan Gosling somehow ensures that he never gets scary even when he's going to extremes seeking revenge and protecting innocent lives.
For her part, Carey Mulligan (2010's "Never Let Me Go") balances an ethereal quality with a world-weary knowledge of the way things are. Irene is kept in the dark about a lot of the goings-on in the picture's second half, but she's no dummy. One imagines that there could well be a future between her and Driver, but the movie's not about that. Whether he gets the girl or not is beside the point; what matters is his worth in deserving her, and proving to himself that his own life hasn't been for naught, lived idly and without taking the right chances. Indeed, it would be difficult to accuse him of being indifferent as a simple job to help out the troubled Standard begins a revolving door of grim human disaster. In covering his tracks and sniffing out all the guilty parties threatening to now target Irene and her child, he—and the film—simultaneously find their ultimate calling while facing a tricky, unshakable moral crossroads where no one is going to get away unscathed.
The supporting cast are as specific and indelible as they are provocative. With varying degrees of screen time, Bryan Cranston (2011's "Larry Crowne") as Driver's friend and employer, mechanic Shannon; Ron Perlman (2008's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army") as the corrupt Nino; and Christina Hendricks (2010's "Life as We Know It") as the enigmatic Blanche, who tags along on the pawn shop hit, all make haunting marks. It is Albert Brooks (2003's "The In-Laws"), however, tearing into the against-type part of a crooked businessman with mob ties, who will be rightfully earning much of the attention. Brooks' richly, despicably felt Bernie Rose is an unforgettable antagonist for Gosling to play off of, one whose quick-thinking veiled insinuations suggest more than he's willing to let on. When Driver hesitates to shake his hand upon meeting him by saying, "My hands are a little dirty," Bernie shoots back with a sly, self-deprecating reply: "So are mine."
"Drive" pivots and corkscrews, thrills and recoils, frightens and gratifies while wearing a transcendent bare heart on its sleeve for Driver, Irene, and every viewer to see. That the film consistently surprises without taking a wrong step is only further testament to how in-sync all involved—but most prominently, director Winding Refn, actor Gosling, and screenwriter Amini—were from conception to final delivery. In regard to the technical specs, they're not only miraculous, but essential. Newton Thomas Sigel's (2010's "Leap Year") cinematography pulsates with energy and inspiration whether the camera is moving or standing still, while the irreplaceable use of music is phenomenal and cool, full of moody, '80s-inspired synth beats that help to illuminate Driver's very being. Kavinsky's "Nightcall" is note-perfect over the opening credits, lettered in hot pink as Driver does what he does best around a glistening downtown L.A. after dark, while the recurring "A Real Hero" by College feat. Electric Youth is the film's aural heartbeat. This is one movie that wouldn't be the same without its soundtrack, or, for that matter, any of its countless attributes. All of them collectively add up to lightning in a bottle. In a year of near-perpetual ennui at the multiplex, "Drive," at long last, is a real, true, passionate motion picture to replenish a doubting cinema lover's soul.