Drive would be a completely different, more ordinary film without Ryan Gosling. Watch him saunter across a parking lot in a blood-splattered jacket – not his blood, but his responsibility – his impassive face and his calm, coiled body saying everything there is to say. He’s a guy who does what he needs to do, and doesn’t talk or agonize about it.
In Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychologically-charged action movie, Gosling’s unnamed character is a part-time movie stunt driver who moonlights by driving getaway cars for criminals. As his noirish voiceover reveals – it turns out he is really taking to a client – he doesn’t want to know the details of the crime. He shows up, drives with unsettling speed and craftiness, then vanishes. It’s a perfect portrait of disengagement, set against a beautifully shot Los Angeles night. Newton Thomas Sigel’s glorious cinematography is filled with crane shots of city lights gleaming in the darkness that give way to crystal-clear, unforgiving daylight on run-down neighborhoods.
But that disengagement gives way when the driver meets his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her small son. With pure movie symmetry, her car breaks down, and the driver gives her a lift. He becomes closer and closer to Irene and the boy – until her husband is unexpectedly released from prison early.
At that point the violence, action and extreme bloodiness of Drive really take off. Gosling’s character tries to help the husband pull one last job to pay some debts, and things go so horribly wrong that you may find yourself asking: is it really possible to kick a man’s head in with your shoe so that it smashes like a pumpkin?
Refn is known for the intense prison story Bronson and the colorful culty violence of Valhalla, and he veers increasingly, deliberately, toward that over-the-top manner as the film goes on. It’s stylish and gripping, but without Gosling it would have remained a genre piece. He transforms it into a movie that mainstream audiences can also embrace, adding psychological depth with a glance, a quiet line reading or body language, creating a character fraught with moral ambiguities (more than the screenplay supplies), making it all seem effortless. It’s an amazing performance in a string of Gosling’s wildly varied roles this year: silly, hilarious romantic comedy in Crazy Stupid Love, political drama in George Clooney’s soon–upon-us Ides of March.
Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman give terrific turns in supporting roles. Cranston’s character, Shannon, owns the garage where the driver sometimes works and is himself a swamp of moral queasiness. Brooks and Perlman make a great pair as the chillingly ruthless mob bosses that Shannon will never escape.
But the women’s roles are pretty hopeless; that’s one action element Refn should think about reinventing. Mulligan does what she can with the poor, conflicted waitress role, torn between her attraction to the driving neighbor and loyalty (with lingering attraction) to her husband. Christina Hendricks is given the ridiculous role of a mobster’s girlfriend and Gosling’s forced partner-in-crime, a part that’s all big hair and heavy eyeliner with a couple of screams. What a waste.
Drive uses Gosling perfectly though, to transform the film’s pulp sensibility into something exciting and even artful.