Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is, in many ways, a triumph of style over substance. I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I tend to value style highly, especially in thrillers and action movies. Modern action films too often seem to forgo both style and substance in favor of idiotic plots and befuddling, alienating aesthetics (one need only scroll down to my review of Conan the Barbarian for a recent example). Drive, on the other hand, is all terseness and stylized beauty, and so slick that one is always tempted to forgive its worst flaws, which include a propensity to sometimes push the whole style thing just a little too far, until it borders on self-indulgence and pretentiousness.
Drive stars Ryan Gosling as a nameless Hollywood stunt driver (echoing of course Walter Hill’s The Driver, or Clint Eastwood’s man with no name in Sergio Leone’s westerns) who moonlights as a wheelman-for-hire. He never participates in the heists proper; he simply shows up, picks up his one-time accomplices, drops them off safely, and drives off into the Los Angeles night (just in case you didn’t get the western parallel the first time around). Then the driver falls for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and finds himself in trouble when Irene’s husband, a man by the unlikely name of Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), comes back from jail hounded by angry debtors. Gabriel turns to the driver, who agrees to help him with one last heist. Last heists never go as planned, of course, and this one is no exception. Soon the driver is fighting for his life and trying to figure out who double-crossed him, while also trying to protect Irene and her son.
As you may have guessed from the above summary, the screenplay by Hossein Amini and based on a novel by John Sallis, is by far Drive’s weakest point. While it is serviceable and plays to Refn’s strengths by providing him with a first half that’s all moody and elliptical setup, it struggles to be more than an accumulation of crime movie clichés and references to everything and anything, with varying degrees of subtlety and success; let’s just say that quoting “The Scorpion and the Frog” is rarely a good idea, especially when it actually has little to do with the film’s plot. Drive also continues the unfortunate tradition of genre films treating female characters as little more than plot devices. The romance between the driver and Irene is handled nicely, in a series of subdued, atmospheric scenes (with the exception of the elevator scene in the second part, which comes off as self-indulgent, needlessly flashy and heavy-handed), but in the end, Irene does nothing but provide the driver with an excuse for getting into trouble and a motivation for getting out of it. Christina Hendricks is similarly underused as Blanche, a character who exists primarily to establish first just how ruthless the driver can be, then that the people he is up against are even worse.
Thankfully, Drive doesn’t rely on its script to dazzle. Refn goes for atmosphere over story, patching together a series of small scenes and set pieces, building up tension until the only way out is a brutal explosion of violence. If it works, it’s because Refn has something most action directors lack nowadays: patience. It’s already on display in the opening sequence, a small heist meant to show the driver at work and establish both his work ethic and his cool, collected behavior when behind the wheel. The entire scene plays out from inside the driver’s car; we don’t see the actual heist, but only wait along with the driver for its perpetrators to come back. The only sounds are the police dispatch the driver’s tapped into and the Clippers-Raptors broadcast he’s listening to on the radio. Refn doesn’t use many shots, letting the camera linger on the driver’s face and hands instead. When the police dispatcher mentions a robbery in progress and provides an address, the driver glances at his rear-view mirror, but Refn doesn’t cut away to a street sign; it’s a tiny thing, but it’s always nice when a director doesn’t insult his audience’s intelligence (which makes the later mention of “The Scorpion and the Frog”, a direct reference to the scorpion sewn into the driver’s jacket, all the more disappointing). The sequence ends not with a traditional chase scene, but with a tense game of hide-and-seek whose abrupt conclusion foreshadows the film’s later violence.
Refn’s directorial style, with his meticulous attention to framing, lighting, and camera angles, is a perfect match for Gosling’s physical performance as the driver. Gosling’s all body language (he has what feels like fewer than fifty lines of dialogue in total), focused, cold and emotionless behind the wheel, awkward and almost childlike around Irene and Benicio (his face lits up in such a way when he smiles that it’s almost enough to make you believe his boss’s declaration that “he’s a good kid”). And then there’s the driver that emerges in the film’s second half, and who retains his single-minded focus but struggles to remain in control of his own violence. Opposite Gosling, Albert Brooks is terrific as slimy mobster Bernie Rose, and constantly threatens to steal the show. Gosling and Brooks only have a couple of scenes together, but those are among the film’s best.
The high point of the movie, however, is the sequence that opens its second half, which begins with the botched heist and culminates with a scene of bloody violence that’s as short as it is brutal. Nothing that follows comes remotely close to recreating the sustained tension of that sequence, and particularly of its conclusion, but that’s because it is one of the very best action scenes of the past few years, on par perhaps with the bathhouse knife fight of Eastern Promises. That the rest of the film can’t compare with that one set piece really isn’t that much of a knock against it. Nor is the fact that it was overhyped at Cannes. Drive is indeed not the second coming of Pulp Fiction one might have expected from those early reports. What it is, though, is a terrific picture, slick and stylish and atmospheric, and that’s already pretty good.