By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man (or is it vice versa?) is equipped with four speeds. There’s the prelude, where maybe we learn something about Driver; the complication, when he meets the gal; the ensuing crime drama; and then a power shift that throws us for a loop.
In gearhead parlance, what ultimately explodes into a death-defying race for cash and creds, replete with lots of grisly scenes you should know about before buckling up, starts off as a sleeper. Like the 1973 Chevelle in gray primer he drives, there’s no way to guess what’s under the hood. Just suffice it to note, there are plenty of twists and turns ahead.
But while certainly there is big American horsepower propelling this action-thriller along, filmmaker Refn’s decidedly European sense of mood and evocation has us expecting someone like Jean-Paul Belmondo to appear just around the next hairpin. Thoughtful pauses increase the effect, as does a haunting, seemingly disassociated score.
It’s a fine mesh of film styles, unavoidably self-conscious at times, but in the long haul effective and to be applauded for its bold stroke. And, on the plain old Philistine level, the appeal to both cineastes and car nuts paints a wide swath of marketing potential. I know both of me—the fop and the white-knuckled fanatic—were in attendance.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, in a high performance characterization somewhat reminiscent of the less-is-more technique Steve McQueen made his own, Ryan Gosling smiles oddly, ponders, and surfaces a strange look you’ll have to scrutinize for yourself. He downshifts to low key real fast. It’s an intriguing study, a puzzle you try to piece together on the run.
Among the other players, representing every make and model metaphor appropriate to the allegorical tale, Irene (Carey Mulligan) is the lady he’d like in the right seat of his bad ride. He’s been keeping company with her and her adoring little son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), who live next door in the second-rate L.A. apartment house. But uh, oh.
The script’s GPS forewarns that hubby (Oscar Isaac) is about to be sprung from the pokey, and we’ve no trouble figuring out that he wasn’t there for parking tickets. The temperature gauge rises. Soon, a veritable showroom of underworld sorts ranging from bottom end thugs to fully accessorized mobsters populates the scenario.
Among them, substantiating my theory that every Pagliacci has at least one great serious role in him, is Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose. Exquisitely detailed, his top end gangster has been around the block. When Driver’s father figure/garage owner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), suggests Bernie parlay his chutzpah on the big oval, oil is mixed with water.
If films came equipped with an evil tach, the needle on this one would be flirting with the redline. It’s not just regular malevolence, but an almost pure, high octane grade that seemingly releases its energy with just the slightest spark. What we wonder is if the quiet, methodical Driver will be able to navigate the rather rough road he’s certain to encounter.
The cat and mouse chase that ensues, supercharged with the sort of quirky additive Quentin Tarantino likes to pour into his movies, also makes a pit stop in Coen Brothers Alley. Sudden violence, oddly mixed with outlandish nonchalance, heightens the effect and makes a frightening statement about the inherent dichotomy of human behavior.
Then, there’s the driving itself. Whether CGI magic or the real deal, the scintillating stunt work deserves accolades. Talk about road rage. Yet, there is also the poetry. Gosling’s wheelman personifies the motorist whose car is indeed an extension of his personality. From his womb-like throne behind the windshield, all the analogies apply.
An idyllic Sunday ride in the country with Irene and Benicio renders the Chevelle a pleasure barge on the Nile, its occupants possessing not a care in the world. But it behooves to inform that, even if in sweet cruise mode, the screenplay can stop on a dime, switch into overdrive and turn into a wheel-smoking, demolition derby from Hell.
The car-casting is as astute as the choice of actors. Nothing too fancy or exotic. These are accessible, meat ‘n’ potato flivvers, with a representative for each of the Big Three. A 2011 Ford Mustang has a key role, as does a menacing Chrysler 300. And, without ever moving from its mark, a gold 1967 Pontiac GTO plays a very important part…hint, hint.
But you don’t have to be a car aficionado to find director Refn’s provocative detour through the fringes of society fascinating. A curiosity about the human condition and a desire to see just what’s around the next bend is all the optional equipment you’ll need.
No doubt about it, “Drive” will transport you to places you simply won’t find on the map.
“Drive,” rated R, is a FilmDistrict release directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and stars Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks. Running time: 100 minutes
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