Movie Review: Drive
The Charlotte Observer
Nobody puts the “angst” in “gangster” like a European director. When the director’s a Dane, you can count on gloomy, chilly visuals and deliberate pacing. And when the director is Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the “Pusher” series in his native country and “Bronson” in England, you can expect intense, often brutal spurts of violence.
So it is with “Drive,” in which Ryan Gosling plays a nameless movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver for crooks. He’s a laconic, uncurious man who lives only for cars. They represent employment, thrills, a weapon in emergencies, a refuge for thinking and shutting out the world – and the only place he feels comfortable accepting the advances of a lonely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a single mom named Irene with a husband in jail.
He’s drawn to her and her preschool son. So when the husband gets out, and his cohorts insist he pull another job to pay a debt, the driver agrees to be his wheelman. Murder changes the stakes, and the neighbor and son are suddenly put in harm’s way.
Gosling’s at his best playing inarticulate or emotionally closed characters like the ones in “Half Nelson,” “Blue Valentine” or “Lars and the Real Girl.” The driver’s role is his meat: He lets us in slowly, crinkling his face in a wary smile like a man who figures happiness can’t last. Mulligan, who was so expressive in “An Education” and “Never Let Me Go,” also speaks here with her sad, sensitive eyes.
Refn and writer Hossein Amini surround them with people who keep talking: the crooked, good-natured garage owner who employs the driver (Bryan Cranston), a melancholy Jewish mobster (Albert Brooks), the mobster’s hot-tempered business partner (Ron Perlman). It’s as if we’re being told not to trust words: Only feelings too deep to express mean anything.
Refn favors long, quiet takes followed by intense, often horrifying outbursts; the movie has the same personality as the driver himself. I didn’t need a scene in which the driver stomps a man to death and we view the pulpy corpse, because I had long since gotten the point about this man’s suppressed rage.
Yet “Drive” can be subtle, too. The typical Hollywood film would make the newly freed husband a thug, so we’d root for the driver to “win” a competition for Irene’s affections. Here the parolee (Oscar Isaac) tries to straighten up; in the long run, he could be a better choice for Irene.
Casting against type helps, too. Cranston has won Emmy Awards as the sociopath of “Breaking Bad”; here he’s weak, cheerful and ingratiating. Brooks wields a razor, rather than the razor-sharp wit for which he’s known. He hasn’t acted in a feature since “Finding Nemo” in 2003, and the industry has been letting a talented guy go to waste.