Drive is genre minus plot plus emotional oomph. It’s quite something. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, whose well-regarded previous work I haven’t seen, builds tension by combining a sense of danger with an ambient, inexplicable feeling of calm. He draws us in not with plot twists, noise, excitement, or even a conventionally sympathetic hero, but with Ryan Gosling’s cool stare, Cliff Martinez’s soothing musical score, and LA’s desolate, quietly menacing streets, strip malls and parking lots. It’s a triumph of mood and atmosphere, a film that leaves you in a sad, thoughtful reverie.
There is a story, about a mysterious, nameless mechanic, part-time stuntman, and part-time getaway driver for hire (Ryan Gosling) who gets involved in a robbery he shouldn’t have. He was trying to help his lovely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), whose scumbag husband (Oscar Isaac) owes a debt to some bad people and needs this score to wipe it out. But it goes bad, and now Driver and maybe also lovely neighbor and her adorable son are in the sights of a pair of pretty ruthless gangsters (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman).
The details of this matter less than how we feel about it. We know nothing about Driver — he was all but immaculately conceived, showing up at Bryan Cranston’s garage a few years before we meet him, an ace mechanic and even more impressive behind the wheel. Om the page, the character is constructed sort of like a superhero, a pure man of action (“I just drive,” he keeps saying, though he can knock a dude out, too), a one-dimensional enigma. But he is played by Gosling as a cool, soulful softie, grinning at Carey Mulligan’s son and striving to find a connection with his mom without saying a whole lot. At points I wondered if he wasn’t intended to be mildly autistic. Either way, we’re instinctively drawn to him; the film extracts an emotional investment without seeming to exert itself in the least.
Similarly, Winding Refn directs the action with a sort of elegant nonchalance, a serenity. The opening sequence — a perfectly timed getaway in a nondescript Chevy — is a beautifully constructed logistical tour de force, but the thing I remember most clearly is how quiet it is, how unflappable. There’s a later scene, set in an elevator, that momentarily raises the stakes with a sudden burst of violence and emotion that still feels beautifully controlled. Drive is a small masterpiece of tonal modulation.
The film is getting much of its attention thanks to the dramatically out-of-character turn from nervous everyman Albert Brooks as the greedy, violent gangster businessman whom Driver inadvertently crosses. The film walks a fine line there too: Brooks is constantly a hair’s-breadth away from being funny, as he naturally is; from turning his villain satirical. But he never quite gets there. I think the movie is too specific for it: he and his partner hang out in pizza places, get involved in pawn shop robberies, and have the easy, rancorous banter of two people who’ve worked together for ages. Like almost everyone else in Drive, they’re mysterious and dangerous and a little bit sad.
The problem, if there is one, lies with what’s also the film’s greatest strength: the enigma at its center. I love the idea of Driver as a benevolent cipher, like an action hero from another planet; it gives the film its singular dreamlike feel and lets Gosling have fun with a role that’s almost abstract. But for the same reason Drive is so engaging as it plays — that weird, existential abstractness — it basically evaporates once it’s over. The movie shows up, casts its melancholy spell, and gets the hell out of dodge. It’s one of the fall’s most unique offerings.
— Eugene Novikov