One mark of a bonafide movie star is that they command your attention even when they are doing and saying practically nothing. Clint Eastwood had that quality; Robert De Niro and Al Pacino did too. In Drive, Ryan Gosling proves he deserves to be included in that rarified group. Playing a character known only as The Driver – a Hollywood stunt man by day, a getaway driver-for-hire by night – Gosling doesn’t say all that much, but his eyes and demeanor do the talking for him. The role is an archetype – Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name transplanted to a contemporary big-city setting – but Gosling gives him shadings and depth. He’s a detached loner who excels at his job, and he subscribes to the credo articulated by the thief De Niro played in Heat: Never let anything into your life that you can’t walk away from in thirty seconds flat when you feel the heat around the corner.
The story of Drive centers on what happens when this solitary man forms an emotional attachment to someone else: Irene (An Education’s Carey Mulligan), the single mother who lives next door. Irene stirs something in the driver’s closed heart. She is unavailable romantically: Her son’s father, who sports the unlikely name of Standard (Oscar Isaac), is about to be released from prison, and she remains faithful to him. But the bond between the Driver and Irene is so strong that none of that matters. He is satisfied simply by being a presence in her life, spending time with her little boy – even helping her husband pull off a heist after he returns home and dangerous thugs immediately demand he repay an outstanding debt.
Naturally, the heist goes horribly wrong. Drive was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson), who gives the film a hypnotic, quiet tone that mirrors the protagonist’s inner life. Adapted from James Sallis’ novel by Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), the movie balances the pulpy action of pictures such as Point Blank with the sleek style of vintage Michael Mann (especially Thief and Miami Vice). The soundtrack is made up of Europop songs and synthesizer music: Even the opening credits, done in a hot-pink scrawl, invoke the 1980s. The steely, brooding mood constantly hints at danger and doom. The first half of the movie is largely bloodless: The second half contains bursts of extreme, astonishing gore, including a scene set inside an elevator that imparts the biggest shock of any film thus far this year. Refn achieves something that is practically impossible to do in movies anymore: He makes you dread violence – pushes and heightens it so far that you’re horrified by it.
The movie also contains a couple of expertly orchestrated car chases, including the one that opens the film, in which the Driver must elude the police chasing him in cars and helicopters. But what ultimately makes Drive so compelling is its characters – sketches given dimension and heft by a superb cast. Albert Brooks reveals an unexpected ability to radiate frightening menace as a crime kingpin capable of extreme acts. Bryan Cranston gives the role of the Driver’s mentor and father figure a tragic undertow, and Isaac brings tenderness and vulnerability to his hardened ex-con. But Drive ultimately belongs to Gosling, whose performance is as memorable as his portrayal of a frustrated husband in Blue Valentine, only this time he relies primarily on silence. He’s an unlikely, tragic hero – the heart of an icy-cool movie that burns like fire.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini. Based on the book by James Sallis.
Producers: Michel Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt.
A FilmDistrict release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, extreme violence, utterly insane gore, adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 16 at area theaters.