Drive, He Said
by Glenn Lovell
Some artists work with clay, others in oil. Ryan Gosling’s character in the much-anticipated “Drive” uses a couple of tons of steel to express himself.
But unlike the adrenaline junkies in “Bullitt” and Peckinpah’s “The Getaway,” he doesn’t make a conspicuous display of speed; he doesn’t “gun it” and leave a mile of rubber. He plays the accelerator as if he were playing a Steinway. Sometimes it pays to haul ass, other times to ease up on the pedal, douse the lights, duck behind a parked car, and wait out the cops or whoever’s giving chase.
“Drive,” beautifully directed by Nicolas Winding Rafn (“Bronson”), opens with a display of Gosling’s automotive acumen. After tersely laying down his exit rules — clients have a five-minute window, 5:01 he’s out of there — he slips behind the wheel of a late model Silver Impala, collects two hoods and deposits them at an L.A. warehouse. They roar out of the parking lot exactly five minutes later, just ahead of a patrol car.
The game of cat and mouse that ensues is played sans dialogue or any outward show of emotion, at least by the driver (his passengers are plenty nervous). Rafn puts us behind the wheel by alternating Steadicam and POV shots accompanied by the twin squawks of police scanner and, over the radio, the Lakers’ play-by-play man. Gosling, shot in profile sucking on a toothpick, is the King of Cool, McQueen incarnate.
It’s a good thing someone’s in control in this pre-credit sequence. Riding shotgun, you’ll be clutching the armrest, heart pounding against rib cage.
Little wonder “Drive” took the director’s prize at this year’s Cannes festival. It’s the kind of film the French like — self-consciously stylish, anti-establishment, existential. At key moments, time flashes forward and even stands still. Think “Two-Lane Blacktop” meets Kubrick’s “The Killing” meets Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store. It’s high-octane excitement for the art-house set ‒ minimalist noir, if you will.
Yes, there’s a plot that goes with the action, but it’s pretty hum-drum, recycled Jim Thompson ‒ the heist gone bad, the double – and triple crosses, that kind of thing.
The Driver ‒ he doesn’t have a name or much of a past ‒ only moonlights as a getaway driver; his day job is mechanic-stunt driver. He’s good at both. So good, boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) dreams of spinning off the business into a competitive stock car team. But he needs a backer. This is where Bernie Ross (Albert Brooks) and his loose-cannon partner Nino (Ron Perlman) come in. Shannon has had dealings with Nino before. You can tell by the pronounced limp.
This being a retro crime saga, there also has to be a girl. Irene (Carey Mulligan), an Echo Park apartment neighbor, does the honors. Irene’s waiting for her husband (Oscar Isaac) to get out of prison. He’s the guy who’s in Dutch with the Mob. To help Irene and her young son, the driver helps the husband. In other words, he breaks the unspoken code: Never become emotionally involved. You always pay in the end.
If you’re up for a movie that’s all attitude ‒ and doesn’t stint on the red stuff ‒ you’ll love “Drive.” I was; I did. The charismatic Gosling, who’s everywhere these days (he opens soon in Clooney’s “Ides of March”), would be catatonic if he were any more understated. He listens, his eyes twinkle, and sometimes, only sometimes, the hint of a smile crosses his lips. The taciturn act works when he’s interacting with scummy underworld types. Less so for the incipient romance. Gosling is ably supported by Mulligan and especially Cranston, who’s painfully good at playing the small-time suck-up. But it’s Brooks who’s the revelation here in a rare character turn. His principal bad guy is chatty, avuncular, right up to the moment he pulls out his straight razor. Anybody remember Mark Rydell brandishing a Coke bottle in “The Long Goodbye”? Brooks is that kind of mean.
DRIVE ✮✮✮1/2 With Ryan Gosling, Cary Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman. Directed by Nicolas Winding Rafn; scripted by Hossein Amini from the James Sallis novel. 100 min. Rated R (for more graphic than usual violence: beware exploding heads)