With Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman; Running Time: 100 minutes; Rated R (for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity); Written by Hossein Amini; Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Sometimes a movie comes along that doesn’t break new ground in plot or characterization, and doesn’t tell us anything about the human condition that we haven’t seen. We respond to it not because of what it has to say but how it says it. DRIVE is just such a movie. It is beyond being cool. It is ice cold.
“Drive” is the story of a nameless character referred to only as “The Driver” (Ryan Gosling). His day job is doing stunt work in the movies, but at night he is a getaway driver for hire. He tells his clients that he does not help them in their robberies. For his fee he provides them with a 5-minute window in which he will be at a designated place to get them away from the scene of the crime. If they’re late, they’re out of luck.
The Driver takes notice of a woman in a neighboring apartment. Irene (Carey Mulligan) is a quietly attractive young woman taking care of a young son on her own. When her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is paroled from prison, The Driver agrees to provide his services for a big robbery that will allow them to get on with their lives. Things go horribly wrong, however, and now The Driver is all that stands between Irene and the thuggish gangsters who are looking for revenge (and their money).
Everything is sleek and understated, so that when there’s an outburst of violence it is often shocking and unexpected. This is particularly so with the unexpected casting of comic actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks as a soft-spoken and utterly brutal crime boss. When he makes a joke here, he’s the only one laughing.
The casting is uniformly good, with Bryan Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad”) providing the film’s few touches of humanity as the guy who supplies The Driver with his cars, and Ron Perlman as another gangster who finds himself in a showdown with The Driver. As for Gosling, the 30-year-old actor has been building an interesting filmography, ranging from mainstream melodramas (“The Notebook”) and comedies (“Crazy Stupid Love”) to truly offbeat art house fare (“Lars And The Real Girl,” “Blue Valentine”). Here he seems to come into his own, using a minimal amount of expression to convey a tightly-controlled character who is always thinking several steps ahead. Indeed, in one scene, where the character is clearly emotionally involved, he dons a full head mask so we see just his eyes and mouth.
This is a story we’ve seen in countless variations: someone who inadvertently gets on the wrong side of the Mob and isn’t going to passively accept his fate. What makes “Drive” interesting is not the action, which will certainly satisfy those going just for that, but the way it turns the action movie into a cinematic tone poem. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has already had a number of acclaimed arthouse crime films like “Pusher” and “Bronson,” is making his bid to go mainstream without compromising himself. If “Drive” is any indication, moviegoers have a wild ride ahead of them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.