The film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson”) and based on a novel by James Sallis, populates its tale with characters who bring their entire lives on the screen, as opposed to the Driver, who gives as little as possible. Ron Perlman appears to be a big-time operator operating from a small-time front, a strip mall pizzeria. Albert Brooks, who isn’t even funny, portrays a producer of the type of B movies for which the Driver does stunt driving — and also has a sideline in crime. These individuals are ruthless.
The Driver is a hired driver. He doesn’t have another name, and he doesn’t have another life. When we first see him, he’s the driver of a getaway car, fleeing police pursuit not merely with speed and muscle, but also by coolly manipulating the street terrain and outwitting his pursuers. He works as a stunt driver for action films during the day. He has no problem between the two professions because he drives.
As played by Ryan Gosling, he follows in the footsteps of two great 1960s heroes: Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Alain Delon’s “Le Samourai.” He has no family, no background, and appears to have little emotions. Whatever happened to him pushed any individuality to the surface. I think he is an existential hero, defined totally by his actions.
That would make him the star of a stupid action film, complete with CGI and wrecks and mayhem. “Drive” is more of an exquisite exercise in style, and while its emotions are buried, they are strong. When a film does not strive too hard, it can have a stronger impact. The enigma of the driver is surrounded by a plethora of supporting performers who are open about their dreams and anxieties, and who have either struck an agreement with the Driver or have not. Another example of the famous Hollywood noir idea that a film lives its life not through its hero, but through the shadows.
The Driver lives somewhere (which seems unlikely given that we anticipate him to fall fully into the drama). Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, is his next-door neighbor and the model of vulnerability. She has a small kid, Benecio (Kaden Leos), who seems to pique the Driver’s interest despite his lack of effusiveness. They warm up, but her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is freed from prison in a week. Despite our expectations, Standard isn’t jealous or antagonistic toward the new neighbor, but instead assesses him, recognises a professional, and swiftly offers a $1 million theft scheme. That will be the driving force for the rest of the novel, and as Irene and Benecio are threatened, the Driver reveals deep affections and attachments, and takes considerable risk for little reward to himself.
Bryan Cranston, as the kind of man you know the Driver must have behind him, is more benign, as a master at auto repairs, restoration, and supercharging.
CGI was stated earlier. “Drive” appears to be lacking in this department. Most of the stunt driving appears to be real, using real cars, rather than animated unrealistic imaginations. In fact, the entire picture feels much more genuine than the standard action-crime-chase concoctions we’ve gotten tired of.
This is a film that values script, acting, and craft. It has regard for informed moviegoers. There were times when I was reminded of “Bullitt,” which was far superior to the films that inspired it. During a pursuit scene, the main thing you want to feel is involvement in the chase’s purpose. You must be concerned. All too often, we are simply witnesses to technology.
Maybe I was thinking of “Bullitt” for another reason. Ryan Gosling, like Steve McQueen, is a magnetic actor. He exudes both presence and genuineness. He has a talent for discovering captivating, compelling characters, as evidenced by his scary young Jewish neo-Nazi in “The Believer” (2001). An actor who can fall in love with a love doll and convince us of it, as he did in “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007), is capable of almost anything. In the trailers, “Drive” appears to be one type of film, and it is. It is also a retort to the majority of the films it appears in.
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