By Coop Cooper
Ryan Gosling plays a tough-guy-with-no-name who works as a stunt driver/mechanic in Hollywood while moonlighting as a getaway driver for high-risk robberies. With no friends or family, he lives a solitary existence until he forms an unlikely bond with his struggling neighbor Irene (Carrie Mulligan) and her cute son (Kaden Leos). His shifty, but good-hearted handler (Bryan Cranston) sets the driver up with a possible stock car racing gig bankrolled by a deceptively genial mob boss (Albert Brooks). When Irene’s ex-con husband returns home, a cascading chain of events pits the Driver up against the mob, threatening the life of Irene and her son.
While the story doesn’t seem all that original and the action is fairly sparse, the style is exhilarating. It successfully emulates the look and feel of the Michael Mann films and TV shows of the 80’s, particularly his crime masterpiece “Thief.” It oozes cool, from the characters and performances on down to the choice of music and freaky font used in the credit sequences and posters. Even the potentially uncool white silk jacket with the yellow scorpion on the back becomes cool when Gosling dons it. In fact, the movie could’ve very well taken place in the 80’s if it hadn’t been for the modern cars and scenery in the background.
Of course it helps to have a stellar cast. Gosling plays cold as ice, but softens in a satisfying way when he is around Mulligan and the boy. London-born Oscar nominee Mulligan plays American better than most A-list American actors; however, I wish she had gotten a more dramatic scene in which to show off her talents. Emmy winner Cranston must be making a move for the big screen but he barely gets to chew the scenery, especially compared to Albert Brooks. Brooks lets loose one of the greatest performances of his career. He’s both amiable and frightening at the same time, a twisted version of his usual comedic self. The hard-working Ron Perlman and the captivating Christina Hendricks also make appearances but only get brief moments to shine.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn is one to keep your eye on. His 2008 film “Bronson” knocked out the critics and made Tom Hardy an international superstar. His ability to glean subtext from a quiet scene or emotion from silent actors is a skill mastered by only the greatest of directors. Discovering an exceptional director is much rarer than finding a exceptional actor and Refn is a find. Within ten years the guy will win every major award in his field. Mark my words.
What makes this film exciting is that it’s another film in the new genre style that also includes the recently reviewed “Hanna.” Odd, but cool action films that focus on character and retro style with an emphasis on interesting music. That description might sound ridiculous but it fits and I expect to see more of them in the next few years.
“Drive” may win some awards, but I’m going to hold off on predictions for now. A revisionist style of film like this could put off some of the more traditional awards voters. The film might also not be talky enough for them. I’m definitely putting it in my “Top 10 of the year (so far)” and I imagine many critics will also.
If you like “Drive” and are new to this type of film, I highly recommend you check out Michael Mann’s “Thief” (1981, starring James Caan) and Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Bronson.” Glad to see gritty 80’s crime making a comeback with a fresh, new perspective.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5
Coop Cooper is a film critic and filmmaker based in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He graduated from Southern Methodist University with a B.F.A in Cinema, and received his Masters in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute in Hollywood. You can read his past articles at: http://www.smalltowncritic.com/