With its hot-pink opening title, pulsing electronic music, sleek aerial shots of nighttime Los Angeles, and steely, detached depiction of a crime in progress, Drive opens as something of a Michael Mann homage, suggesting not only Miami Vice but West Coast works such as Heat and Collateral. By the end, however, Drive's gallery of underworld characters and series of increasingly garish bloodlettings are indebted to the Scorsese and Tarantino school of genre filmmaking.
Altogether, this American debut from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is a daringly abstract take on the modern American action movie. The stylization has a particularly European feel, but the stillness — the way spasms of violence interrupt stretches of quiet — is more reminiscent of Japanese action movies, from samurai classics to the yakuza stories of modern master Takeshi Kitano.
At the center is Ryan Gosling, a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for heist jobs. In a soft-spoken performance that manages to be both reserved and mannered, Gosling creates a protagonist who's somewhere between laconic and catatonic. His character is not named but credited only as "The Driver."
Gosling's Driver lives alone and works as a mechanic in between his legit and illicit driving gigs. The garage owner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), gave the Driver his entry into the film world and wants to sponsor him as a stock-car racer with funding from shady movie producer Bernie (Albert Brooks).
Shannon appears to be the Driver's only friend, but Shannon's twitchy, scheming neediness contrasts sharply with his charge's cool control, which is captured in a hypnotic, virtuosic pre-credit heist-job set piece that has Gosling dodging cops in downtown Los Angeles while monitoring a Clippers game on the radio. This is not a high-speed chase but a quiet, vehicular chess match that communicates the Driver's grace under pressure and his peculiar personal code.
Early on, the Driver develops a bond with an attractive new neighbor (Carey Mulligan, playing working-class American), a mother whose husband is about to be released from prison. These unexpected and apparently out-of-character entanglements eventually lead to "one last job" gone wrong, a bloody aftermath, and a bag of money the Driver doesn't want.
If Gosling's borderline-mute protagonist and Mulligan's unadorned love interest form a quiet core, that only gives a rich cast of supporting players more latitude to chew scenery. In addition to Cranston, there's Ron Perlman as a violent gangster with a pizza-store front operation. Christina Hendricks makes a brief, effective appearance as an untrustworthy moll. And then there's Brooks, an underrated treasure whose tough, gonzo turn as a former movie producer turned crime-operation frontman provocatively tweaks his trademark West Coast neurotic character.
Refn has emerged as a cult director with his recent stylized action flicks — the prison movie Bronson and the Viking carnage flick Valhalla Rising — and his successfully transposing this personal style into something approaching a mainstream American genre movie should enhance his standing as a director to watch. If the plotting is familiar in Drive and the relationships somewhat shallow, those potential problems are made nearly irrelevant by what is a refreshing exercise in re-inventing the familiar through pure style and mood.
Opening Friday, September 16th