The U.S. debut of a Danish director provides a stylish, hyper-violent shock to the system
Sometimes, you forget what you've been missing until you see it. Allow me to back up: If you watch a lot of films, you'll see good ones and bad ones, some of them exceptional in one direction or the other. But whatever genre they might inhabit—action flick, historical drama, romantic comedy—they tend to line up along one relatively familiar spectrum or another.
Now and then, though, you see a film that jumps off the spectrum altogether, one that reminds you that novel possibilities exist even within the most well-worn cinematic conventions. In the most extreme cases—Annie Hall, say, or Star Wars or Pulp Fiction—such a movie possesses enough gravity to realign the spectrum altogether. And while Drive, the stunning Hollywood debut of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, is unlikely to have such an impact (it is a triumph of execution more than formula), it is nonetheless a minor revelation.
The narrative and stylistic elements of Refn's film are familiar—indeed it is awash in echoes and allusions—yet they are assembled into something fresh and vital and astonishingly intense. Ryan Gosling stars as a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a by-appointment-only wheelman for crooks who lack their own wheels. (Think of him as the Zipcar of getaway drivers.) His mentor in endeavors both licit and illicit is Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a hard-luck garage owner who imagines that his fortunes might still take a turn for the better. Gosling's character, known only as "the driver," meets and takes a quiet interest in Irene (Carey Mulligan), a pretty apartment-building neighbor who lives with her son while she waits for her husband (Oscar Isaac) to finish out a prison sentence. Rounding out the principal cast are Albert Brooks (in a notably unBrooksian role), Mad Men's Cristina Hendricks, and the ambulatory Easter Island head known as Ron Perlman.
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The less said of the plot, I think, the better: Though its premises are conventional enough, it swerves down unexpected avenues. Going into the film, I knew very little of what was to take place, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Suffice it to say that the movie is an homage to old car-cult B-movies such as Bullitt and The Driver, and that it starts slowly before accelerating to harrowing velocity. The first half has a bit of the moody, music-video feel of Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai; the latter half, the shocking, visceral ferocity of Korea's Park Chan-Wook. The extreme and escalating violence will prove off-putting to some—frankly, I'm surprised not to have been among them—but for the rest, Drive is a needle-punch of adrenaline to the aorta.
The film's elegant cinematography is by Newton Thomas Sigel, Bryan Singer's usual collaborator, and the script is adapted by Hossein Amini from the James Sallis novel. The cast is uniformly strong—in particular Gosling, whose lithe, wary presence suits the iconic aspirations of the role. But the true star of Drive is director Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Vahalla Rising), who proves himself to be admirably dangerous at any speed. Scene after scene is suspended in exquisite tension, by turns romantic and murderous—and, in one notable instance, both. It is a testament to Refn's supple gifts that the same film in which Gosling and Mulligan trade sheepish grins amid awkward silences can subsequently rise to operatic malevolence and yet feel entirely of a piece.
Among its many resonances, Drive reminded me of Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, another tale of a driver teetering between innocence and cruelty; of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West, with their nameless, laconic protagonists and meticulous buildups to spasms of sudden violence; of the original 1971 Get Carter and its intoxicating pitilessness; of Halloween in its use of—well, you'll see. It reminded me of late Cronenberg and early Scorsese, of Michael Mann without the preening and Tarantino without the ADHD. Most of all, though, Drive reminded me of what it can be like—what it ought to be, but so infrequently is, like—to go out to the movies. I was buzzing when I left the theater. I'm buzzing still.