Nicolas Winding Refn seems like an unlikely artist to be the guy who is making a career for himself as the pre-eminent bard of movie machismo, but that appears to be the case.
His “Pusher” trilogy is a marvel of soap opera plotting and bad guy behavior, and he made Kim Bodina feel like the world’s greatest unknown movie star, a Danish Tony Soprano. His film “Bleeder” is about the rejection of comfort and love, with violence shown to be this seductive, necessary piece of some people’s chemical make-up. His big breakthrough moment seemed to be “Bronson,” which I reviewed in the very early days of this site, and that movie is all about transforming yourself into a giant battle-hardened beast and then punching your way through life. “Drive” is, aesthetically speaking, an early Michael Mann movie. It’s a small doomed little character piece, with Ryan Gosling giving a great movie star performance, self-aware and stylized to an extreme.
This might be the best all-around cast that Refn’s ever worked with, and he’s got a lot of familiar faces even in smaller parts here. Carey Mulligan plays a woman with a young son and a rough history who lives next to Gosling. Bryan Cranston is the guy who owns the business where Gosling works, a quasi-low life who is always on the hustle and who sees opportunity in this kid. Albert Brooks is a money guy, a former Hollywood player still barely holding on at the outer fringe of what’s legal, partnered up with Ron Perlman, a dangerous guy who has trouble keeping his respectable veneer in place. Christina Hendricks is a woman paired up with Gosling on a job, and Oscar Isaac is the troubled husband from Mulligan’s past who shows up to drag everyone back down. The film throws all of these bruised souls into one arena and then just watches them collide, careening off one another to punishing effect. At the center of everything, there’s Gosling, so quiet and still that he’s a little spooky, coiled and ready for violence that erupts from time to time in horrifyingly beautiful moments.
And that’s pretty much it. “Drive” is beautifully made, beautifully acted, and it casts a strong mood while you’re watching it. I think the film is ultimately a small noir exercise, though, and I don’t think it’s going to be for everyone. It is hyperviolent in places, in momentary splashes of red and grey matter, and after the screening I attended, there were a few people still vocally upset by it in the elevator. They were unprepared, and I think people who only know Gosling from his few mainstream moments, fans of “The Notebook” or his airbrushed abs in “Crazy Stupid Love,” might not be ready for something this jet-black. This is the Gosling who played a Jewish neo-Nazi in “The Believer,” the guy who uses these bland, sad-eyed good looks to hide something ugly and awful. In “Drive,” he is beyond competent at the one thing he does well. No one drives like him. He’s like Senna from the documentary I just reviewed, alive and engaged behind a wheel, in tune with the mechanics and the road and the other drivers. Gosling drives a getaway early in the movie, and Refn shoots it brilliantly, showing just how good Gosling is. it’s not just about speed but about judging things, making choices, figuring out when to drive and when to stop. It’s mostly wordless stuff, but Refn luxuriates in the moments where Gosling is behind the wheel. It’s hilarious to me that Refn doesn’t drive in real life, because he fetishizes it here. He understands the allure of being at the helm of a powerful machine, making it do whatever you want it to do.
The soundtrack is exceptional, both the songs used to powerful effect throughout and the score by Cliff Martinez, and Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography is just gorgeous, lush and moody and in love with the seedy corners of Los Angeles. Special note must be made of the work by Matthew Newman, the film’s editor. This is precise, unconventional stuff, and he really sells every single moment that Refn built. There’s an intriguing sense of timing, and places where Newman will hold a shot just long enough to make it a linger, choices that give the film a haunted afterglow. It’s a movie that sticks with you. I think it’s an easy movie to overpraise because of just how strong the cast is or how lean the script is or how efficient the pace is, but it is a film of subtle pleasures. I love that Albert Brooks plays scary in the film in places. It’s not the way I’d first think of him, but seeing how he handles the material here, it’s something I’m surprised no one else has really tapped before now. He’s great. Bryan Cranston is one of those guys right now who everyone wants to work with, and you can see how much he loves losing himself in the details of a character like Shannon, with his bum leg and his bad luck and his beaten-dog demeanor. Carey Mulligan is a symbol more than a character, a life that the Driver can never have, but that he gets to taste for a short moment, and she becomes the thing he has to maintain, the innocence he has to protect since he can never have back his own. He has to safeguard the idea of her, the very notion she exists.
This is a film I’m sure I’ll revisit several times, a movie that is simply a pleasure to observe. Refn’s command of cinema is no less film geek specific than Tarantino’s, but for some reason, no one’s really called him on it the way they hammer Tarantino for quoting and borrowing. When I call this an early Michael Mann film, that’s not a tough conclusion to reach. This film feels like “Thief” and “Manhunter,” and the soundtrack here is a definite nod to the sounds of those films. Even with that feeling somewhat overt, though, “Drive” really is a lovely step in what is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting international filmographies. I can’t wait to see Refn take on the world of Thai-boxing in Bangkok with Gosling for his next one “Only God Forgives,” and I hope this is the beginning of a long and bloody relationship.
“Drive” opens in the US on September 16, 2011.