In the mesmerizing noir thriller Drive Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson Pusher) takes James Sallis’s eponymous pulp novel and lends it a stylish retro sheen harkening back to archetypal “lone wolf” films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Ryan Gosling plays Driver (his real name is never given) a mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman performing stunts for Hollywood productions and driving getaway cars for thieves. Laconic and impassive he cuts a solitary figure his avuncular agent/manager/auto-shop boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) the closest thing he has to a real friend. His lone distinguishing fashion accessory – a white satin jacket with an orange scorpion emblazoned on the back – foretells of darker aspects of his personality yet to emerge.
When Driver encounters Irene (Carey Mulligan) a waitress left to raise her child alone while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is away in prison the attraction is immediate. All sweetness and vulnerability (with shades of melancholy to boot) she awakens both his romantic and protective instincts. Their relationship blossoms in glances and gestures captured in long languid shots and glossy dreamlike montages. The change in Driver is subtle but significant: His normally stoic face flashes a brief contented smile.
Alas it is to be short-lived. Standard returns home released early for good behavior bringing with him baggage from his criminal past. Soon a pair of goons arrive demanding he rob a pawn shop as recompense for protection money owed and threatening to harm Irene and their child if he refuses. Out of concern for them Driver agrees to aid in the heist. The job goes disastrously awry but Driver manages to escape with the money – and a target on his head.
The tone coarsens in the film’s sanguinary second half as Driver is pitted against two local crime bosses – Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) – and their assorted minions. When would-be assassins come hunting for him Driver dispatches them with the same icy efficiency with which he drives killing without hesitation. (He is arguably a psychotic – albeit a heroic psychotic.) The violence meted out is savage gruesome and – to my eyes (and stomach) at least – excessive. A shotgun beheading a severed jugular a fork in the eye: Drive serves up one shocking kill scene after another with the relish of a trashy splatter film.
Drive favors mood and atmosphere over plot. An enchanting synth-pop soundtrack pulsates throughout. Dialogue is exceedingly spare. The film can afford such narrative economy in part because Gosling is so effective needing little in the way of words to convey the complexity of his character. Refn largely eschews the frantic camerawork and frenetic editing favored by today’s action-movie directors. Scenes unfold slowly in plaintive lighting and at unorthodox angles lulling us into a pleasant stupor before erupting in a burst of violence. In the film’s most memorable scene Driver steals a prolonged slow-motion kiss with Irene in an elevator before turning around and (literally) stomping a man’s face in. Pretentious? Perhaps. Self-indulgent? A tad. Disturbing? You bet. But exhilarating nonetheless.