This review contains some slight spoilers.
Movies have forgotten how to be cool. Fast paced, hectic explosion-filled actionfests aren’t cool. Cool is quiet. Cool is precise. Cool is understated but always completely effective.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is cool.
How cool is this movie? It takes Ryan Gosling, one of the most overhyped actors of his generation, a former Mickey Mouse Club star, a guy whose acting style is either tween Brando or De Niro with a sinus infection, and it makes him cool. Totally cool. Zenlike.
He’s so cool that the film’s tension doesn’t come from the possibility of bodily harm to him, or the failure of a mission. It comes from Gosling’s character, The Driver, getting into situations where he just might lose that cool.
Drive is filled with surface coolness - Gosling’s driving glove and his satin jacket with a scorpion embossed on the back, awesome scenes of intense violence, lyrical slow motion shots, incredible photography of Los Angeles at night - that it’s possible to lose sight of the incredible cinematic surety underpinning it all. This is Refn’s best work so far, a movie that is as tightly controlled as The Driver while he speeds away from a heist. It’s a film as quiet and patient and self-assured as its lead character, a film that holds shots with steady determination, that creates characters in bold, simple strokes. Every shot is incredible, every sequence beautiful and often tense and exciting. Drive isn’t an action film - it’s a crime noir - but the action in it is staged with clear eyed ability and the will to thrill.
At times the movie seems poised to be all posturing coolness, as devoid of humanity as the heavily electronic soundtrack. But Refn never allows it. The central story - The Driver meets and falls for his neighbor and her son and gets into bad trouble trying to help them out - is played with deft perfection, never becoming some kind of cloying cutesy bullshit and always driving the emotional beats of the film.
What’s more, each character is allowed small moments of exploration; a shot of Ron Perlman’s Nino, the Jew who wants to be a Mob wiseguy, having a fancy dress party in his shitty strip mall pizzeria, laughing his ass off while the silicone blonde he’s with seems beyond bored, sums the character up so simply, so beautifully and in such a human way that further speechifying and arm waving is unnecessary.
Refn’s dealing with a stacked deck when it comes to these characters. So much of the hard work is done in casting, and Refn’s done an almost flawless job. The leading light in the film is surely Albert Brooks, one of the great comedy minds of the last few decades, playing a film producer turned mobster. Brooks doesn’t put on menacing airs or try to be tough. He plays the role like an Albert Brooks character… an Albert Brooks character who will suddenly stab someone in the eye with a fork.
The Driver and Brooks’ Bernie are like shadows of each other, mirror images. Where The Driver is taciturn and silent, Bernie is all patter. But they are similar in one way - neither man resorts to violence first. When Bernie is forced to resort to violence it is sudden and brutal and final, but he keeps his violence locked away - literally, as we see that a straight razor he uses in one murder gets kept in a display box filled with antique blades. Again, it’s a wonderful little character touch.
Perlman is fantastic as Nino, filled to the brim with impotent rage. And as Bernie has a shadow in The Driver, Nino has a shadow in Shannon, played by Bryan Cranston. A hard luck case with a pelvis that was shattered because of bad debts, Shannon tends to The Driver’s cars and gets him occasional stunt work in movies. Where Nino is scrambling to get recognition from the East Coast families, Shannon is scrambling to get some respect in general from anyone. And he thinks he has a scheme to get him and The Driver to the next level.
Except this is a crime noir, and nothing ever goes right. And because this is a noir, there’s always a woman at the center. This time it’s Carey Mulligan as Irene, The Driver’s next door neighbor whose personal problems suck him in and make him begin to lose his cool.
Mulligan’s playing a character who, in other hands, would be blank. The British actress finds so many levels to Irene, though - regret, fear, hope and a dogged self-respect - that she elevates the character to new levels. She’s not a femme fatale, but sort of the opposite, a vision of a life that The Driver wishes he could have, a happiness that he never imagined he could find. She’s not even particularly sexy, a very deliberate choice as most of Mulligan’s wardrobe covers her up. She’s in a lot of sweaters. The point Refn wants to make is that this relationship isn’t about fucking, it’s about love.
In fact the two characters only kiss once, a moment done in wonderful theatrical style (the lights dim and the camera slowly dollies in on them, time coming to a crawl through the subtle use of slomo), and that’s followed immediately by The Driver kicking a man’s skull inside out. It’s an incredible moment, and at the end, when The Driver stands sweaty and blood soaked you have to wonder which of the two events just really made him lose his cool.
Now we’re back to Gosling. He’s an actor I’ve never liked; you can just feel him acting in every scene he’s ever been in, and he has this nasally whine to his voice that simply irritates. Here, though, it works. Part of that may be the fact that The Driver rarely talks, and his two biggest ‘speeches,’ such as they are, are emotional moments where Gosling’s adolescent voice creates more vulnerability.
In the past he’s worked hard to achieve a kind of onscreen stillness, but in Drive he naturally has it. It’s as though working with Refn has given Gosling the keys to cool guy nirvana, the ability to effortlessly chill out on screen. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen something magical happen like this, and it also happened in an LA car crime film - Walter Hill got an unbelievably cool and assured and real performance out of prettyboy Ryan O’Neal in 1978’s The Driver.
Drive isn’t a remake of The Driver, but it is certainly a spiritual successor. The film wears its DNA on its sleeve, from the 80s-esque soundtrack (Cliff Martinez gets very Giorgio Moroder at times) and neon script titles to the smart 70s pacing. Don’t mistake this for pastiche or homage, though. This isn’t Super 8, a movie desperately trying to replicate another era’s style and feel. Refn is making a movie for 2011, but one that is aware of its heritage. This isn’t a nostalgia movie, because nostalgia isn’t cool. Cool is timeless, and Drive is timeless.