Easily one of the very best movies you’ll see this year, Nicolas Winding Refn’s spellbinding mix of David Lynch and Michael Mann circa the 1980s is a sucker punch to the gut as well as one of the most heart-wrenching love stories of the year. Drive is a dangerously cool thriller with a heart and a brain. In short, it’s pretty darn perfect.
Ryan Gosling exudes the quiet cool of Steve McQueen in Bullitt as a mechanic and sometimes Hollywood stunt driver who makes his real money at night driving heist getaway cars on the sly. Driver (he’s the archetypal “Man with No Name”) rarely speaks, and when he does, he means serious business. He’s also excellent at what he does. He drives with crafty skill, knowing when to put the pedal to the metal and when to hold back and skulk through the dark Los Angeles streets, staying just under the radar.
When Driver takes a shine to Irene (Carey Mulligan), the beautiful woman next door, who lives alone with her young son, things change. Their meeting and instant fondness for each other coincides with two other monumental events: Driver is about to go legit by piloting a stock car in a race for a movie producer turned gangster (Albert Brooks), and Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is getting out of prison after a short stint for armed robbery.
The film takes on a feeling of almost serene menace as the events begin to converge and Driver must now save Irene and her son from mortal danger. To say anything more would rob you of the thrilling roller coaster ride this story becomes.
Drive vibrates with a mood of foreboding and impending doom. The ticking bomb tension is brilliantly punctuated by bursts of gentle beauty and tenderness juxtaposed against interludes of horrifically graphic violence that materialize as suddenly as a heart attack.
Refn patiently pulls tension from each and every frame of the film, whether it’s a scene involving Driver exchanging a meaningful glance with Irene or sitting in a car, calmly waiting for a robbery to play itself out, listening to the police scanner as the cops that will soon be pursuing him organize. It’s the kind of cinema that takes relish in tying your stomach into knots. It’s a tense cat and mouse game that begins when the opening credits roll and doesn’t let up until the end.
Ryan Gosling plays Driver as the ultimate anti-hero. In fact, his cagey performance is the key to what makes the movie work so well. He plays Driver as a steely and slightly unhinged man but it’s also clear he’ll do anything for the people he loves.
He’s the quintessential bad boy with a heart of gold and Gosling has him down pat, allowing the seemingly socially awkward Driver to bloom slowly, as he begins to run up against the myriad forces that fate puts in his path. He believably reveals the hidden turmoil and deep loyalty that lurks behind his aura of stony silence and bubbling just beneath the surface rage, all while managing to make an otherwise ridiculous satin scorpion jacket look effortlessly cool.
Speaking of cool, credit should also be given to the exquisite score, a throwback to ‘80s synth-pop by Cliff Martinez (a one-time drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefhart) and prominently featuring tracks by The Chromatics, a Portland-based indie electronic band. The combination of the brooding vintage keyboards and the film’s inky, neon-tinged streets of Los Angeles by night is completely intoxicating.
Drive is sure to be polarizing to more mainstream movie-goers but lovers of gritty crime dramas will be sure to fall in love with this low-thrumming throwback that’s never once running on empty and consistently lands on all four wheels.
Nicolas Winding Refn's atmosperic direction, Gosling's sheer presence and a soundtrack that's perfection make Drive a fantastic film.